The dreaded d-word: Weather expert says too soon to speak of drought, but it's a possibility in 2012
It's too soon to use "the d-word," said weather expert Leon Osborne, but "if we have another round of La Niña conditions, then this time next year we may be talking about how we prepare for drought conditions across North Dakota."
Even without La Niña, a weather phenomenon involving cooling of tropical Pacific water, he said he expected "an abnormally dry set of conditions" will develop by late July or early August, although those conditions aren't expected to extend far into fall.
The president and chief executive of Grand Forks-based Meridian Environmental Technology spoke Thursday at the annual Prairie Grains Conference at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. A record crowd of more than 700 attended the show, sponsored by seven North Dakota and Minnesota farm organizations.
Most of the area has been in a wet cycle since 1993, and flooding and too-wet-to-plant fields have become familiar occurrences. But the warm, dry fall has put much of North Dakota into low-stage drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor Index, an Omaha, Neb., based partnership of federal and academic scientists.
"We're moving down the path of drier conditions," Osborne said. If La Niña comes back for a third straight year in 2012, "then we have a significant risk ahead of us," he said.
This year's La Niña is already making its presence felt with the warm fall.
Osborne said it will help make for an exceptionally cold winter. "We will set some record cold conditions. In fact, this may go down as one of the coldest winters in the past 30, 40 years."
He put the probability at 90 percent. "I won't say it's a sure thing, but it's getting close."
Why is a cold winter so likely?
Osborne placed some of the blame on a switch in ocean currents that's melting more north polar ice than usual. That creates an above-average amount of open water, which in turn affects the jet stream, a current of fast-flowing air at high altitudes that plays an important role in weather formation.
La Niña's cooling of the Pacific is also a contributing factor.
It went away and came back this past summer and continues to strengthen into January and February, before weakening and leaving by late May, Osborne said.
Both La Niña and the out-of-whack polar thermometer were factors in the cold winter of 2010-11 as well, Osborne said. "Even more of polar ice has melted this year."
Among Osborne's other forecasts:
The winter will be relatively dry. Though some snow will fall, it will have low-water content.
Precipitation will return to normal or near normal by June.
Soil temperatures will rise slowly this spring.
There's a higher-than-average chance of an extended cold period through May and into the first part of June.
The odds of a late freeze this spring will be higher than usual.
There may be a White Christmas after all. He said one of his company's weather models suggests that "you might get a Christmas gift on about the 22nd or 23rd of December of a nice 3 or 4 inches of snow. And then it's going to stop."
La Niña already has contributed to serious drought in Texas, Osborne said.
The Texas state climatologist has predicted that drought there likely will persist for another six to nine years, Osborne said.
The drought also is expected to expand north, at least into parts of Nebraska and possibly beyond, which will impact commodity markets, said Osborne, speaking primarily to farmers and others involved in agriculture.
Texas and surrounding states suffered badly from drought in the 1950s, particularly 1954 to 1956, Osborne said. That drought worked its way northward on the Great Plains, he said, but ultimately had little impact on North Dakota.