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Let it snow: N.D., western Minnesota may see drought abate

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FARGO — Drought conditions in North Dakota and western Minnesota should get better this spring, but farmers will rely more on spottier thunderstorms and conditions will get dry again in August and September, says one of the region’s leading weather and climate experts.

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“It’s all going to be about timing this year,” says Leon Osborne of Grand Forks, N.D., president and CEO of Meridian Environmental Technology. He spoke to a crowd of about 300 Feb. 6 at the Northwest Farm Managers meeting in Fargo.

The winter snowpack is greater this year than last year, Osborne says. That’s a big plus, although snow alone won’t break a drought.

“We are seeing an improvement because we’ve replaced (last year’s) strong low pressure in the Arctic region with high pressure, which has allowed colder air to move southward,” Osborne says. This has allowed the jet stream to move across the region, bringing precipitation.

Water content in the snow is “not as robust as under a warmer year,” Osborne says. But last year, the snow was carrying a trace of water, while this year, it ranges from 1 to 5.5 inches. That’s critical, even though it’s 1 inch below the 10-year average.

“We have to keep the snow coming,” Osborne says. “We cannot get too much snow at this point.” He says the snow recharges the topsoil so it can “continue with that evaporation process so that whenever the storms do occur, the precipitation from the bottom of the cloud makes it all the way to the ground.”

From a national perspective, Osborne says he earlier expected temperatures February through April to be below-normal, especially in the south. He says as the winter has moved forward, national forecasting models are showing a larger “green” area of potential drought recovery, moving from northeast into southeast North Dakota.

“Clearly, we will not repeat what we had last year — the warm conditions and people being able to get into the fields early,” Osborne says. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to get in late. We probably should be in the average planting time.”

North Dakota likely will be in the near-normal position from May to June — the critical time for getting precipitation.

“Across the Central Plains, I have near-normal precipitation but … it is not enough to get them out of drought,” Osborne says, looking at areas into South Dakota and farther south. He thinks much of

North Dakota will be wet enough from April to June to “get us out of drought” and temperatures will be near seasonal averages. In July through September, the near-normal rainfall areas will shift into Canada and drier conditions will expand northward, encompassing southern North Dakota and most of Minnesota.

Later in the summer, Osborne sees temperatures and dryness increasing in southeast North Dakota, western Minnesota and southwest Minnesota. He says farmers in those areas might get significant precipitation, but it will be spottier and associated with widespread thunderstorms.

“By the time we get into the fall time period, we could see a wetter fall condition as we get to the end of the growing season,” Osborne says.

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