Ag Weather Forum

Promising Winter Moisture Trend for Southern Plains

Bryce Anderson
By  Bryce Anderson , DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist
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The November-December-January time frame has a good chance of above-normal precipitation across the entire southern U.S. -- including the Southern Plains. (NOAA graphic)

OMAHA (DTN) -- El Nino is well established in the equatorial Pacific and is on track to loom large in determining the winter weather pattern across North America, according to Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken.

El Nino is the term used to describe a large-scale warming of the equatorial Pacific waters, along with an atmospheric circulation which results in sustained west-to-east low-latitude jet stream winds. The current El Nino was first identified in March of this year. Its onset is a bit unusual. Typically, El Nino events become established during the Northern Hemisphere autumn season, and reach maximum intensity early in the Northern Hemisphere's winter.

The current El Nino "is high and going up," said Doesken during a NOAA central region seasonal forecast webinar. The 2015 El Nino is the strongest such event since 1997. For the central region, a wide difference between above-average precipitation in the southern areas and dry conditions in the north is a major feature of El Nino.

In Doesken's view, the chance for rain in the Southern Plains is very important, particularly for winter wheat. "Winter wheat is off to a shaky start," he said. He said wheat growers have been "dusting in" seeds for the 2016 winter wheat crop. "They've been putting the seed on in the dust of the top level, waiting for rain," he said.

But those efforts have a good chance of paying off, with late-fall precipitation moistening up the soil and giving the wheat seeds a sprouting chance. "If there's anywhere where confidence (of rain with El Nino) is high -- it would be the southern and central Plains," Doesken pointed out. The NOAA forecast for the November/December/January time frame supports that assessment; the entire Southern Plains region has either a moderate or high probability of above-average precipitation.

So far this fall season, precipitation has been spotty in the Southern Plains; some stations have had very little. Hill City, Kansas, for example, has had just over one-half inch precipitation since September 1 -- only 20% of average. Such a departure on the dry side makes a western Plains-Rocky Mountain focused climatologist like Doesken nervous.

"Every storm you miss, you're a little deeper in the hole," he said. "And the farther west you go, you only get a few chances. We'd really like to see something (precipitation) before the first week of November."

However, Kansas City, Missouri-based regional climate center director Doug Kluck said there is still time for El Nino to perform in the precipitation arena for the Southern Plains.

"It's too early to call it a dry fall in Kansas yet," Kluck said. "The greatest impact (precipitation) is generally later in winter for El Nino, so we tend to see those events coming on in December-January-February and even stronger in some events."

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