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USDA March 2014 Winter Weather Summary

11:41AM Mar 31, 2014

Highlights: The coldest winter since 1978-79 gripped Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin, while Michigan endured its coldest winter since 1976-77. The Midwest experienced not only bitter cold, but also abundant snowfall, which resulted in travel disruptions and stressful conditions for livestock.

Meanwhile, drought persisted or intensified from California to the southern Plains under a mild, mostly dry weather regime. Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas endured near-record winter dryness. California, nearing the end of a third consecutive year of drought, noted its warmest, third-driest winter on record. Previously, California's warmest winter had occurred in 1980-81, while the only drier winters had been 1976-77 and 1990-91. Ironically, California's warm winter began with a December freeze that harmed crops, including citrus, in the Central Valley.

Between the extremes, the Plains were subjected to frequent and rapid temperature changes. Abundant precipitation, mostly snow, fell across the northern Plains, but generally dry, breezy conditions-along with the frequent lack of protective snow-led to declines in winter wheat condition across the central and southern Plains.

Elsewhere, the South and East endured periodic bouts of wintry weather and extreme cold, although conditions were not as chronically harsh as those observed in the Midwest. In addition, winter agricultural areas of Texas and Florida escaped without a significant freeze.

Historical Perspective: According to preliminary data provided by the National Climatic Data Center, winter featured regionally contrasting temperatures and mostly drier-than-normal conditions. The Nation's average December-February temperature of 31.3°F was 1.0°F below the 20th century mean, while the average precipitation of 5.69 inches was 84 percent of normal-marking the 34th-coldest, ninth-driest winter since 1895. The last drier winter occurred in 1980-81.

State temperature rankings were impressive, ranging from the warmest winter on record in California to the fifth-coldest winter in Wisconsin. Arizona experienced its third-warmest winter, while top-ten rankings for winter coldness were also noted in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, and Minnesota. Meanwhile, State precipitation rankings ranged from the third- driest winter in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, to the 18th-wettest winter in Delaware and West Virginia.

December: Winter got off to an early start across much of the Nation, with very cold air settling into the western and central United States and snow covering more than half of the country for several days.

December storminess was widespread, except in the West, where a potential third consecutive winter of drought got underway in California and the Great Basin. In addition, an early-season cold wave gripped much of the West during the first half of the month, harming citrus in California's San Joaquin Valley and sending temperatures plummeting below negative 40°F at a few locations in Montana.

Meanwhile, several impressive storms affected the East, where multiple rain and snow events chipped away at autumn precipitation deficits. At times, snow also blanketed portions of the Plains and Midwest, with winter's chill deepening in those regions as the month progressed. By the end of December, temperatures across the upper Great Lakes region rivaled those observed in the West a few weeks earlier.

However, the Southeast was spared from the cold weather, with temperatures regularly topping 80°F and remaining unusually high through month's end. In fact, several Southeastern locations set or tied monthly records for December warmth.

Elsewhere, most of the Nation's winter wheat moved into its period of dormancy with few concerns. On the Great Plains, well over half of the wheat was rated in good to excellent condition at the end of December in States such as South Dakota (70 percent good to excellent), Nebraska (65 percent), Oklahoma (63 percent), Montana (60 percent), and Kansas (58 percent). However, drought concerns persisted on the southern High Plains, including Texas' northern panhandle.

January: California's drought worsened, despite some late-month rain and snow. For much of the month, the West, particularly California, endured warm, dry conditions. As a result, California, the Great Basin, and parts of the Southwest faced nearly insurmountable odds of overcoming huge season-to-date precipitation deficits by the end of winter-and the likelihood of completing a third consecutive dry winter. In addition to California's impending water- supply issues, drought impacts included poor rangeland conditions, severe stress on rain-fed winter grains, and depleted soil moisture reserves.

In stark contrast, colder-than-normal conditions accompanied occasional winter storms across the eastern half of the Nation. Several periods of bitterly cold weather gripped the Midwest, South, and East, resulting in the lowest temperatures in a decade or more. Frigid conditions were especially persistent across the upper Midwest, maintaining stress on livestock in the wake of a cold December. An early-month blizzard in parts of the Midwest and a late-month snow and ice event across the Deep South were among several notable storms.

Between the Western warmth and Eastern chill, sharp temperature fluctuations affected the Plains. In addition, January precipitation was scarce across the Nation's mid-section, leaving winter wheat exposed at times to bitterly cold conditions. Specifically, wheat in parts of Nebraska was not insulated by snow when temperatures plunged below 0°F on January 6, 23, and 27-28. As a result of unfavorable weather, wheat conditions declined during January. For example, the portion of the wheat rated good to excellent fell from 70 to 60 percent in South Dakota; 65 to 46 percent in Nebraska; 60 to 46 percent in Montana; 63 to 36 percent in Oklahoma; and 58 to 35 percent in Kansas. Texas wheat, already stressed by drought, was rated 19 percent good to excellent and 41 percent very poor to poor by month's end.

February: California experienced an unusual February, with record-setting warmth occurring between early- and late-month storminess. The rain and snow, while significant, failed to appreciably dent California's 3-year drought. However, the precipitation aided drought-stressed rangeland, pastures, and winter grains, and temporarily eased irrigation requirements. At month's end, beneficial precipitation also overspread other drought-affected areas, including the Great Basin and parts of the Southwest. Meanwhile, a sustained stretch of stormy weather improved water-supply prospects in the Northwest.

Farther east, snowy conditions on the northern High Plains contrasted with drier-than-normal weather on the southern Plains. During February, the Plains' winter wheat condition remained steady or declined due to a combination of drought, temperature extremes, occasional high winds, and exposure to bitter cold without the benefit of a protective snow cover. By month's end, 46 percent of the wheat was rated in very poor to poor condition in Texas, along with 31 percent in Oklahoma, 22 percent in Kansas, and 18 percent in Nebraska.

Meanwhile in the Corn Belt, bitterly cold, often snowy weather hampered rural travel and maintained stress on winter-weary livestock. Many individual station records for seasonal snowfall and days with sub-zero temperatures were approached, tied, or broken, especially in the Great Lakes States, as Midwestern communities experienced their harshest winter since at least the 1970s.

Elsewhere, much of the South and East were also exposed to periodic bouts of wintry weather and frigid conditions. However, winter agricultural regions of Deep South Texas and peninsular Florida continued to escape without a significant freeze.