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December 7, 2012 08:21 PM

What happened in 2012, and what makes this winter so difficult to predict?

Mark Twain once noted that there’s only one thing certain about the weather: "there is  going to be plenty of it." Although he made that statement in 1876, it still rings true more than a century later. Farmers are thankful for the forecasting improvements since Twain’s day. Even so,  predicting the weather and climate remains one of the more fickle sciences.

"This winter is especially hard to predict," says Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist. "We have seen some significant changes to the forecast throughout the past few months. That is a signal of a low-confidence forecast."

One key hang-up is whether an El Niño event will materialize by mid- December. El Niño and La Niña patterns are determined by Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures, which in turn shape the jet stream that passes over North America.

What Are El Niño and La Niña?

el nino

la nina

During an El Niño event, warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean reroute the jet stream as it passes over North America, pushing the major storm routes through the Southern U.S. and into Canada. La Niña begins with cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the same Pacific region. This time, the jet stream drags most of the major winter storms through the Upper Midwest, with a drier, milder Southern U.S.

Iowa State University ag meteorologist Elwynn Taylor says it should be no surprise that U.S. weather is largely dictated by what happens thousands of miles away in our oceans.

"Our oceans have so much heating capacity," he says. "They can really soak up or give off heat."

During El Niño, the southern split of the jet stream drags across the southern half of the U.S., bringing with it a warmer, wetter winter, while the Midwest stays milder and drier. A typical La Niña jet stream flows much more northerly, usually across the Upper Midwest. The result is a  generally drier South, with bursts of cold, wet weather in the Midwest and Northeast.

Dutcher says conditions are favorable to develop a weak El Niño pattern, but it’s not a lock. If it does establish, a normal El Niño event will last for about a year. El Niño visits more often than his sister—about seven out of every 10 years.

The other aspect that concerns Dutcher is whether the western Corn Belt can establish snow cover early in the winter. Snow cover promotes cooler weather, allowing for additional snowfalls to occur.

"I expect by next planting season, we will see significant if not complete drought recovery in states such as Illinois, Indiana and Ohio," Dutcher says. "There’s not as much room for error in the western Corn Belt, however. We’d like to see some heavy snowstorms here to give us confidence that we’ve turned the corner."

Turning Up the Heat

According to Elwynn Taylor, professor of ag meteorology at Iowa State University, climate forecasters have been somewhat spoiled in recent years. But that’s about to change this winter.
"Lately we’ve been in either an El Niño or La Niña pattern," he says. "That is the primary indicator of what our winter weather will be like, but we’re headed into this winter with neutral conditions for the first time in six years. During neutral conditions, growing degree days are the
important factor." Look for stability to return to some of the eastern Corn Belt with riskier conditions further west, as drought is more likely to persist in those geographies.

drought projections

Generational Droughts

Dec Weather Story Maps


Farmers across the western Corn Belt share Dutcher’s concerns.

"My biggest concern is not this year, but next year," says Marc Arnusch, who farms corn, sunflowers and sugar beets in Weld County, Colo. "Reservoirs will take months to refill with excellent snowpack. I can’t imagine what average snowpack will provide."

Iowa climatologist Taylor says farmers east of I-35 typically don’t have to worry about getting adequate winter precipitation; however, this was no typical year. Areas that faced significant drought might need more moisture to fully replenish soils than some farmers realize.

"Normally, the soil dries out in the first 5' because that’s where the corn roots are," Taylor says. "But this year, roots went down 8' or 9', taking water out of the soil all the way down."

Taylor calculates water needs in this scenario using his local central Iowa soil as an example. "Our soils can hold up to 2" of water per foot of soil. That means we’re going to need 16" to 18" of moisture in Iowa to get the soil back to normal—and that’s not likely," he says.

What’s in store. Andrew Freedman, senior science writer, Climate Central, says he hopes the anomalous weather in 2012 won’t cause predictions to be "gun-shy" for 2013.

"This past year has been so extreme that to some degree, the tendency is to say next year can’t possibly be that extreme," he says.

Anything is possible, Freedman adds, and many of today’s leading models predict there will be more frequent—and more severe—weather events as the warming climate trend continues. So an event like October’s Superstorm Sandy might not just be a freak accident, he says.

Seasonal climate forecasting is still in its relative infancy, Freedman says, adding that it is at times both fascinating and frustrating. For example, a model from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., accurately predicted the 2012 drought’s timing, severity and geographical footprint as early as January. However, the model was considered an outlier at the time and didn’t get the traction it needed among the forecasting community.

Still, the problems are solvable, Freedman says. Scientists are building on the lessons they learned this year to improve modeling methodology. That, along with annual upgrades to computer processing prowess, ensures that progress happens steadily.

"Hopefully we can make a lot of progress in the next several years," seasonal, annual and decade-todecade forecasting, we can provide a lot of value to society. It’s not a total blind spot right now, it’s just a bit blurry."

What will happen in 2013?

As this winter comes into focus, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a "wavering" El Niño pattern. Recent predictions favor the following weather conditions through February:

  • Drier-than-average conditions in the Upper Midwest and West.

  • Wetter-than-average conditions in the Gulf Coast states.

  • Warmer-than-average conditions across the western Corn Belt and into the Rockies.

  • Cooler-than-average conditions in Florida.

  • Equal chances of hot or cold, wet or dry everywhere else.

It’s not too early to start planning for 2013, Taylor says. Keep monitoring your soil moisture this winter, and know your state’s deadline for federal crop insurance, he says. Also, it’s definitely not too early to research and select a blend of drought-tolerant or standard hybrids that will work best on your farm.

Others in the industry will spend the winter months reminding farmers that the 2012 drought created a complex ripple that can affect unexpected facets of farming.

For example, the drought complicated resistant weed diagnosis, says Mark Peterson, global biology leader for Dow AgroSciences. That’s because the drought prevented canopy closure in a lot of fields, allowing for a secondary weed outbreak that may appear at first glance to be a resistant population. But farmers will have to do some further investigation to see if that is actually the case, he says.

"The most important thing to do is walk the fields to see if it’s occurring in any kind of pattern," Peterson says.

Seeing patches instead of strips could indicate a bigger problem. "In the early stages of resistance, you have a resistant individual that creates those patches," he says.

Time will tell what weather this winter brings, but farmers will learn soon enough how the stage has been set for the 2013 crop. "Winter will do what it wants," as Taylor puts it.


1988 Versus 2012: A Tale of Two Droughts

tale of two droughtsFarmers love to talk about the weather, even when it’s bad weather. This summer’s drought  invoked a lot of comparisons to the 1988 drought. Farmers argued their cases for both sides, but who was right?

Farm Journal surveyed farmers in November, asking them which year was worse. With a margin of error of 4%, the results were a dead heat, with 36% responding that 1988 was worse, 40% choosing 2012 and the remaining 24% saying both years were about the same or they weren’t sure.

Enter the Climate Corporation. By tapping into a massive cache of data from various public sources, the company can offer farmers a unique suite of weather insurance options. Distilling the data allows the company to calculate the probability of drought, heat and other yield-limiting weather events down to the field level.

Director of agronomic research Jeff Hamlin says the available data does indeed answer the question of which drought, 1988 or 2012, was worse.

"The answer is going to vary from one region of the Corn Belt to another," he says. "But if you look at the Corn Belt as a whole, I think you would say that 1988 was worse. From April through August across the Corn Belt as a whole, it was clearly drier in 1988 than 2012 in terms of total inches of rain. In terms of heat, both were pretty similar. 1988 was hotter in most regions  from the middle of June through the middle of July, but 2012 was hotter from the middle to the end of July."

Iowa State University professor of ag meteorology Elwynn Taylor adds that 1988 was unusual in that the drought crept from east to west. It didn’t establish real problems in areas such as the Dakotas until 1989.

The Human Side of Weather Forecasting

Since he was five years old, Mike Smith, senior vice president of Accu-Weather Enterprise Solutions, has been on a mission. That was when an infamous monster dubbed the Ruskin Heights Tornado ripped through Kansas City, demolishing buildings and killing 44 people. Smith’s elementary school was shredded to pieces during the carnage.

After college, Smith worked as a television meteorologist before founding WeatherData Services, Inc. In 2006, he sold the assets of his company to AccuWeather, where he remains today. Smith says some people look at weather and climate forecasting as a "dry and starchy" process but that a real passion for benefiting humanity underpins the science.

For example, when an accurate tornado warning is issued with adequate advance, it allows people to evacuate to safety. Eighty lives were spared on Feb. 5, 2008, when a Caterpillar plant in Oxford, Miss., had ample time to escort its employees into a tornado shelter. The plant itself was destroyed in the storm.

Smith applauds the industry’s recent efforts at improving weather forecasting.

"We have made incredible progress in forecasting extreme storms in the last decade," he says. "The Hurricane Sandy forecasts were excellent, for example."

Smith hopes that more resources are devoted to weather forecasting in the coming years. "People get killed in violent storms," he says. "People don’t get killed in drought. But it still has tremendous implications for the economy. Meteorology is playing an ever more crucial role in saving lives and keeping our economy strong."

In 2010, Smith wrote a book titled Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. The book focuses on the human side of forecasting and its service to society, highlighting the struggles and successes of weather and climate prediction over the past half-century.

You can e-mail Ben Potter at

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