Early indications show a strong start to the season is probable
The story of winter weather so far can be boiled down into a three-word phrase: “high amplitude pattern,” according to University of Georgia climatologist Pam Knox. That weather phenomenon has created alternating surges of colder and warmer air in the eastern two-thirds of the country.
“It’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on, especially heading into planting season, where initially warm weather could give way to a late frost potential,” she says.
Speculating on a late frost beyond the 10-day forecast is nearly impossible, but Knox says it’s a red flag to monitor as planting season nears.
Ample precipitation earlier this fall and winter have invigorated the soil moisture profile in many areas of the western Corn Belt that were in desperate need of a recharge, says Al Dutcher,climatologist with University of
“Several areas, including Nebraska, even have a surplus of soil moisture,” he says. “It’s very encouraging, especially in light of soil moisture we’ve had in recent years.”
As of early January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasted a 65% chance of
El Niño conditions developing during the winter months, which is a weak possibility. Dutcher says even a weak event would spell additional drought relief in areas such as California. By some estimations, though, California will need 11 trillion gallons of water to “catch up.”
Barring any major weather calamities, it’s not too early to suggest normal or even above-normal yields for 2015, Dutcher says. Drought risk in the Corn Belt looks pretty isolated for the time being, he adds.
“The incidence of drought risk looks to impact a small area in the Northern Plains, with a secondary area of Ohio and eastern Indiana,” he says.
Allen Motew, director of Chicago-based QT Weather, predicts better-than-normal soil moisture by July in the Plains and the Corn Belt, with a possible exception in Minnesota.
While Motew says it’s been a struggle to get El Niño going, even the current “near El Niño” influences should create a wet spring west of the Missouri River.
“In fact, we’ll potentially struggle in some areas because of wetness, but most areas will get off to an excellent start and maintain good soil moisture at least until June or July,” he says.
A Good Versus Bad Forecast
How do you know if a forecast is any good? You grade it afterward, notes Tom Di Liberto with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Grading forecasts—or in nerd-speak, verification—is incredibly important,” he says. “Not to get philosophical, but, like pondering the sound a tree makes in the woods if no one is around, a forecast is not a useful forecast if it is never validated or verified.”
NOAA evaluates seasonal forecasts across years or decades, scoring them on how routinely right (or wrong) they are and their variability.
“That’s a big step to separate which forecasts and forecasters to trust and which to forget about, Di Liberto says. “It’s not hard to make a prediction; it’s hard to get it right.”