La Nina is either coming to an end, or has already ended. In either case, Pacific Ocean equator-region temperatures are expected to be in a neutral phase during much of 2017. And with that development comes the potential for some hard-hit drought areas of the continental U.S. to either have an easing or a complete end to drought by the time spring 2017 rolls around.
That's the expectation given during a forecast conference call last week by NOAA Climate Prediction Center seasonal forecaster Brad Pugh.
"During the next three months, the seasonal precipitation shows a strong signal for above normal in the northwestern U.S. through the Northern Plains, along with the Ohio Valley," Pugh said. "Drought conditions show some improvement in the Ohio and Tennessee Valley areas."
That improvement would be welcome. In the southeastern U.S. drought-affected area, Asheville, North Carolina, recorded its second-driest fall season (September-November) on record. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, had a run of 71 straight days without measurable precipitation during this time. Birmingham, Alabama, was not far behind with a zero-precipitation streak of 61 days.
La Nina -- the Pacific Ocean feature which has cooler-than-average equator-region water temperatures -- likely played a part in the harsh Southeast drought.
"There was an area of standing high pressure over the Southeast during the fall," said Charles "Chip" Konrad of the Southeast Region Climate Center. Konrad noted that the high-pressure influence allowed for very few days of rain in the Southeastern U.S. during the fall season. "La Nina played a partial role in that, probably," he said.
From now on, however, the Pacific cooling is tailing off. "Upper ocean heat content shows that negative anomalies (cool areas) have decreased. La Nina could weaken over the next month," Brad Pugh said. Officially, a transition to a "neutral" Pacific phase is indicated during the January-February-March period. "Sometime in the next three months," Pugh said.
The change to a neutral Pacific may be going on, with storm systems bringing some heavy precipitation to the Southeastern U.S. recently. Chattanooga, Tennessee, logged a record precipitation total of 4.01 inches on Thursday, Dec. 1. And Crossville, Tennessee, has recorded 4.29 inches of precipitation so far in December, more than an inch above normal. Drought is easing. "The Drought Monitor is looking more like Swiss cheese on colors, and that's good to see," said Kentucky State Climatologist Stuart Foster.
The improved drought prospect does not include the southwestern Plains. This region, and running southeast to the Delta and Deep South, is expected to have drought continue. In addition, the Gulf Coast is forecast to see developing drought conditions.
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