WEATHER OR NOT: Climatologists aren’t concerned about drought yet

Ruth Nicolaus for Tri-State Livestock News
The future looks promising, weather-wise. Despite the unusually warm, dry weather over the last few weeks on the Plains, climatologists are predicting an average to slightly cooler spring and summer, with average to slightly above average precipitation. Photo by Amanda Merkel.

For many, this spring is feeling eerily like a repeat of 2012. That year, record-breaking heat in March segued into a devastating drought that cut down cattle numbers across the Plains.

Drought conditions still exist across South Dakota and Nebraska, but they are minor and nowhere near as prevalent as they were three years ago.

State climatologists Dennis Todey from South Dakota and Al Dutcher from Nebraska say there’s no need for concern yet.

“At this point in the year, I don’t consider (potential drought) a major concern,” Todey said. “It all depends on where conditions go from here. Right now, I’m not overly concerned about major problems with drought.”

El Niño, the warmer than average eastern equatorial Pacific waters, has settled in. “We’ve been on the edge of having an El Niño since last fall, and it’s finally kicked in,” says Todey. “Right now, the computer models are hinting that we are likely to stay with El Niño at least into the summer.” That’s a good sign, he says. “As we get into summer, El Niño has a tendency to be not too hot and not too dry.” But context is important, too. “We might be near the average temperature or slightly cooler, but we tend not to be hotter.” The same goes for moisture. “We could be near average or slightly above average precipitation, but we tend not to be dry during El Niño. The computer models are a little more consistent in being wet farther south and west in the Plains, and not saying too much about farther north and west in the Plains.”

The drought of 2012 is hard for people to forget, and that topic has come up several times in discussions Todey has had. “Because of some of the warmth we’ve had in late winter and early spring, it’s comparable to what we had in 2012. I’m not forecasting a repeat of 2012,” he emphasized.

The new long-range outlooks are released on the third Thursday of every month during a webinar, in which the public can view the outlooks and ask questions of presenters. The webinars are recorded and available for review online at (click on the Midwest and Great Plains Drought Webinar on the left bar). The long-range outlooks are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.

A precursor to possible drought is the snow pack in the central Rocky Mountains, and not just because of the run-off. “If snow pack is lower than normal, it melts off quicker than normal,” says Al Dutcher, Nebraska State Climatologist. “We don’t want to see the snow pack disappear before the first of June. The longer the snow in the mountains, the longer it creates an unstable environment by creating colder air at the higher elevation, which increases the chances of thunderstorms developing.” That has a bigger impact on the western third of Nebraska, but it has implications for the whole area. With a lesser than normal snow pack, “the western states heat up with the lack of precipitation. The snowpack keeps the western ridge from overwhelming the area quicker than normal.”

Dutcher’s prediction is that this spring’s weather will be similar to the spring of 2014 but not as intense. “The (2014) spring was exceptionally cool and wet and exceptionally stormy,” Dutcher said. This year, the trough in the eastern U.S. is less intense, which will cause most storms to go to the northern or southern Great Plains, not so much in the central.

In eastern South Dakota, a dry fall and lagging moisture in late winter is causing concern. For the three-month period ahead, April through June, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s outlook continues to trend towards drier than average for the eastern edge of South Dakota. “This is a change from earlier outlooks that projected equal chances of drier, wetter or near average rainfall for the later spring season,” Todey said.

As usual, though, time will tell.

“We will continue evaluating and know more in the next four to six weeks,” said Todey. “If we have not improved by that point I will start being more concerned. The four to six week time would put us a good way through our spring precipitation time. For rangeland if have not had much precipitation by that point that really raises the risk on productivity. For row crops the risk is also higher. But you can still have decent crops with rains occurring at the right times. By that point we will start getting a better picture of what summer would look like.”

Even though drought isn’t in the immediate forecast, ranchers and cattle producers should have a plan in place.

Jerry Volesky, Range and Forage Specialist with the University of Nebraska’s West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, says to be ready. “With drought plans, it’s really a series of events or actions that are put into place, once we realize we’re in a drought.” Volesky recommends that ranchers and producers monitor their local rainfall and compare it to the long-term average. When monitored precipitation comes up short by “trigger dates”, (May 1, June 1, etc.) that should trigger some kind of action on the part of the rancher. “That action could be things like planning to feed hay longer in the spring, doing a little bit heavier culling on cows to reduce numbers, just those kinds of things. It sure makes a difference to have these scenarios thought out ahead of time,” Volesky said.

And it takes some of the emotion out of difficult decisions. Volesky has visited with ranchers who faced the drought in 2012 with a plan. “One of the things (the plan) did for them, is it made it less stressful. They realized things were going to be bad, and they were ahead of the game, especially in terms of selling livestock and culling pretty heavily. And in that sense, they fared a little better in terms of the market price. It hadn’t dropped as much (selling in May and June) as it would have if they had tried to hang on to those cattle till the first of July.”

Sandhills grass has recovered well from the 2012 drought, Volesky says, and the outlook so far is good. “Right now, here in North Platte and central Nebraska, it’s nothing out of the ordinary yet. These warm temperatures we’ve had these last couple of weeks have gotten people a little concerned, but it’s a little too early to tell and it can change quickly one way or the other. We could start to get rain or snow, or it could continue to be dry.

“But you still hear people expressing some concern. Personally, I wouldn’t be too worried yet.”

Drought planning strategies are available online through the National Drought Mitigation Center. Find more information at