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Nebraska has hope for relief

After struggling through the worst drought many ranchers could ever remember, all eyes and ears were on the climatologist as he gave his weather predictions for Nebraska. Al Dutcher spoke about the drought, and his weather predictions for the upcoming months during the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory open house in Whitman, NE.

After paying close attention to the conditions developing in the state as early as last fall, Dutcher told the group of nearly 100 ranchers there was no pleasure in being right when he predicted last year that Nebraska would be in a drought. “As a climatologist, you shoot for 60 percent accuracy,” he said. “I could see from the conditions developing last fall and this spring that we were headed for a pretty significant drought,” he explained.

What was alarming to Dutcher was the significant la Nina event that occurred last year, then reemerged as fall approached. While the first half of 2011 saw better than average precipitation, a drying pattern emerged and intensified that was particularly concerning to Dutcher.

“Texas was in such extreme drought last year, it was very concerning to me when I saw how much forage and hay was headed in that direction last year. I kept wondering if we were going to be wishing we had kept it here. The drought started in Texas last year, and moved into the central plains. The drying pattern seems to be moving north into the Dakotas, but the Sandhills will still be under watch next year,” he said. At the same time, Dutcher said it appears the drought conditions may be letting up in the southern plains, but he plans to keep an eye on it.

“Since last July, in Nebraska, we have averaged four days of above normal temperatures for every one day of below average temperatures. That has been fairly consistent from last fall into this spring,” he said. “In January, February and March, the days with above normal temperatures were at least 15 degrees above normal, while the below normal days were only five degrees below normal. During this time frame, there was little significant moisture, and little significant frost,” he noted.

Then, the warm temperatures broke dormancy on the native plants in March, which was a full month ahead of schedule, he said. Since then, weather patterns have kept everything a month ahead of schedule through the summer.

To completely reduce all pictures of drought in western Nebraska, Dutcher said the area will need to receive normal precipitation to help pull things back into normal conditions, plus three additional inches, before the area could see drought conditions completely eliminated.

There is concern that with the lack of moisture during this growing season, and if there continues to be a lack of moisture going into fall, the drought will intensify next year. “I would say to you confidently, that the statistical odds that we would have two back to back years of drought is no different than when you move from a significant drought year and see it next year, than if you have normal circumstances,” he addressed the crowd. “You have the same probability.”

However, Dutcher remains cautiously optimistic a change for the better is coming. “I see no below normal amounts of precipitation predicted for Nebraska during the next few months. It is actually the best forecast Nebraska has seen in the last five months,” he said. However, if the forecast is wrong, and there is less than 50 percent of the normal precipitation during the next three months, it would be virtually impossible to make up all the moisture needed – unless western Nebraska has an excessively wet winter, he noted.

During the last 12 or 13 months, the state has been below normal in precipitation. The last time the state had normal precipitation was in September 2011. Last year, Texas received more snow accumulations than most areas of the central and northern plains, he said.

However, based on weather patterns, Dutcher thinks it’s highly probable western Nebraska will see some recovery. “My expectations are we will see a return of moisture. The models indicate much more activity coming into the region until we get the surface wetted up – then all bets are off,” he said. “My feelings are we are going to have some abundant precipitation this fall. If we don’t, then I don’t have a clue what is going to happen this winter,” he added.

“It would not shock me whatsoever if we see a substantial area of below normal temperatures for the plains, northern great lakes, and Nebraska based on wherever that northern jet set is intersecting with the moisture compass. That is where the precipitation will be the heaviest. So we will have to watch this northern trough.”

Dutcher said the Dakotas may have high temperatures and drier conditions if the drought progresses north. “If the northern jet stream settles over Kansas, we will see a lot of overriding precipitation or some combination of that,” he said.

Dutcher left producers with a final thought: “It will take several years to recover in Texas. There is lots of damage to the native vegetation. We are looking at the same situation in the Sandhills. If there is a repeat of this year during the next 12 month period, it will be much worse because we are building on an established drought,” he said.

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