Here we go again

March 27, 2010 06:29 AM

This could be another feast-or-famine weather year. Most climate watchers expect wet, cool weather to continue through spring in the Midwest and Southeast. The same conditions that bring abundant soil moisture to spring-planted crops will also result in flooding on low-lying fields. Some experts suspect that hot, dry summer weather could make things tougher on crops that are shallow-rooted because they germinated in soggy circumstances.

Since this past fall, our weather has been dominated by an El Niño pattern, an oscillation caused by water temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. That's what brought on the rainy fall weather that hampered harvest throughout the U.S. from Canada through the Mississippi Delta.

This winter's heavy snows can be blamed on El Niño. So can the chilly temperatures. Climatologists think El Niño will continue through early summer, anyway. That means wet conditions could delay planting in many areas. On the other hand, it could help jump-start crops that do get planted.

Some forecasters now predict that a La Niña pattern will follow. La Niña tends to be the opposite of El Niño, resulting in hotter, drier than normal conditions. That could be the worst situation possible for many farmers.

"At this point, we're not saying there will be a shift to La Niña, but some models indicate it is possible. If it does happen, it probably won't occur before mid to late summer,” says Mary Knapp, Kansas State University climatologist.

La Niña summers never bring good news for farmers and ranchers.

"The worst-case scenario is for El Niño to end and suddenly shift to La Niña. Our most challenging summers, with extended dry periods, have been associated with La Niña, notably in 1983, when there was a great deal of moisture in spring that caused difficulty with planting. That El Niño terminated in June and switched to La Niña, resulting in very hot and dry conditions. That was one of the most serious droughts since the Dust Bowl,” says Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist.

Taylor, like other climatologists, admits that it's anyone's guess what will actually happen. He boils it down to three options: the wet, cool El Niño pattern could continue indefinitely, or switch to La Niña's dry pattern, or there could be a repeat of what occurred in 2009.

"The most likely scenario is for a repeat of 2009, which was similar to 2004 and 1992. There were hotter than usual conditions west of the Continental Divide, but Corn Belt crops were generally good. I'd say the most likely thing is that it will be about like last year,” Taylor says.

For now, though, just getting crops in the ground will be challenge enough in some areas. Greg Spoden, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources climatologist, expects spring flooding once again in the Red River Valley, as well as along the Minnesota River.

"We had an extraordinarily wet October, two to four times the historical average in some cases, which completely saturated the topsoil. Then on top of that we have substantial snowpack, as much as 2' in places. This means major flooding is a near certainty in Minnesota for producers in floodplains. If snowmelt occurs rapidly and rain falls on top it, all that water will head to the tributaries. Many communities have already been preparing for the flood to come,” Spoden says.

Iowans face a similar situation. "Soil is saturated. River levels are higher. Plus, two-thirds of the state has a lot of snow cover on the ground. The odds are greatly elevated favorable to flooding,” explains Harry Hillaker, Iowa's state climatologist.

That situation holds true throughout much of the Midwest, Taylor says, and farmers could be planting in wet, cool soils all the way to the Gulf Coast.

"As long as El Niño is in place, the setup for spring is that we can anticipate more coastal storms and an enhanced chance for cool temperatures,” says Barry Keim, Louisiana state climatologist.

The pattern concerns Stuart Foster, Kentucky state climatologist. "I'm wondering if our soil temperatures may take a lot longer to come back to where they need to be. We seem to be in for more of the same,” he says.

In usually arid west Texas, more than adequate soil moisture enthuses farmers. "Dryland growers have good conditions for planting. Irrigated growers are hoping they will not need to spend so much money on pumping. Right now, farmers are cautiously optimistic,” says Steve Verett, Plains Cotton Growers executive vice president.

John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist, agrees that the Panhandle is positioned well heading into spring. South-central Texas, hit hard by drought in 2009, could still have problems even though that area, too, had plenty of winter precipitation.

"In south-central Texas, things are fine for now with soil moisture, but they're on a short fuse for drought. There is not a real strong indication they're in a long drought, but it is a possibility. It depends on longer-term cycles, and we have not figured that out yet,” Nielsen-Gammon says.

Wet, cool conditions are already delaying planting in Georgia. David Stooksbury, Georgia's state climatologist, expects a drying trend to come by late spring, however. "I would not be surprised if we're talking abnormally dry, above-normal temperatures. That is not uncommon following an El Niño winter,” he says.

Snowpack in the Rocky Mountains coming into spring is half of normal in some areas, meaning summer water supplies could be diminished. "Most reservoirs are full, though. The
Arkansas River Basin is doing quite well for moisture. Further north, conditions are not as good as they could be. We're still hoping the El Niño pattern will favor a more northerly storm track,” says Wendy Ryan, a Colorado Climate Center researcher.


You can e-mail Charles Johnson at

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