Has the winter snow accumulation been enough to recharge drought-stressed soils?
Winter is officially half over, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow and winter weather records, especially in the Central and Eastern U.S., are being broken left and right. It came as no surprise to historical climatologist Evelyn Browning-Garriss, who predicted the extreme cold winter and California drought last October.
"The first tip was that we had the coldest Artic summer on record," she says. "It was so cold, in fact, that the Arctic sea ice grew 60% this summer. [Ed.: Arctic sea ice rebounded from a record low in 2012.] Normally, the Arctic summer has about 90 days above freezing; in 2013, there were less than 50."
When cooler Arctic air descended into the Continental U.S. this winter, it helped break 6,800 snowfall records in December alone. The effect this winter has had on agriculture has been severe, Browning-Garriss says. In October, a wet corn harvest required large quantities of propane to dry down the crop for storage. Now, extreme cold is stressing livestock and costing farmers and ranchers more money to keep animals safe and healthy.
Meantime, drought has plagued much of the Western U.S. California is amid the worst drought in a century, and 56% of the lower48 states are in dry or drought conditions.
The saving grace? El Niño may be on its way back, Browning-Garriss says.
"Many models are now predicting a weak El Niño, with El Niño conditions beginning in the summer," she says. "This would be great for U.S. grains, for fruits and vegetables and overall good for world crops. An El Niño has the potential to break a California drought, and this could be the light at the end of the tunnel."