Chances of U.S. drought look slim

by Drew Lerner
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It is hard to discern whether today’s futures markets’ tranquility is because of declining world economic conditions or weather remaining relatively stable without catastrophic events impacting production. Maybe it is a little of both. The quiet marketplace prevails while the drought mongers are hard at work trying to stimulate interest in a U.S. drought in 2016.

The drought mongers have used the potential for La Niña, the possibility of a quick transition from strong El Niño to strong La Niña and even the current parallel with the El Niño and drought of 1983 as leaping points for the next “greatest drought of all time” where everything that can go wrong will go wrong as attention-getting scenarios to put nervousness into the marketplace. The small but vociferous group of forecasters, analysts and traders is what makes the market go up and down, supposedly. But from a scientific perspective, it is a little annoying. If you have not got one, it is imperative that you seek out that meteorologist who cares little for the limelight and more about an honest approach to weather forecasting, to keep us from losing sleep at night about all the disasters that are coming. Sometimes, just for entertainment, it is fun to think back over time about all of the ridiculous forecasts that have been made that proved to be much less significant than advertised. Try it sometime. It really helps to keep drought mongers and “Chicken Little” look-a-likes from ruling the world.

Here is one to consider while you are building your backyard bomb shelter, straight from the “what-if?” department. What if El Niño does not go away in 2016? Where will the drought mongers go then? The latest El Niño forecasts have backed off on the potential for a quick transition to La Niña conditions and there are some forecast models that have recently suggested that perhaps this El Niño will not dissipate completely in 2016. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a computer forecast model run that has been suggesting just that. The model, CFSv2, has been suggesting a steady rate of cooling will occur in ocean surface temperatures during the next three months, but the cooling rate will slow this summer and the model has suggested that El Niño may stop short of completely dissipating. This latest forecast model run actually allows a little more El Niño strengthening to take place in the Northern Hemisphere autumn of 2016.

The model forecast is not out of the realm of possibilities. World Weather, Inc. has been observing recently that cooling ocean temperatures in the subsurface water of the western Pacific Ocean have not yet cooled enough to completely neutralize the mammoth El Niño of 2015-16, but that is based on the latest data and these forecast model runs are only good for about 90 days. Any forecasts beyond that period are always vulnerable to sudden changes in atmospheric and oceanic changes.

La Niña not expected to form this summer

The most important part of the latest NOAA forecast is the fact no La Niña is advertised during the next six to eight months. World Weather, Inc. predicted in January that no La Niña would evolve during the Northern Hemisphere summer growing season and there is much evidence supporting that statement from all kinds of sources, and there is strong agreement about that in the weather business. However, the U.S. drought of 1983 came without La Niña and it also came with a wet and cool spring which is also largely agreed upon by many meteorologists for 2016 as a byproduct of continuing El Niño conditions. However, this NOAA forecast model has gone a step further and has suggested the El Niño event might not go away at all, but become very weak. What happens to the world of weather if this takes place?

If El Niño actually does not dissipate through the summer, it would help put a little more rain into the U.S. forecast while taking away precipitation from western Canada. Such conditions would likely result in a second year of drought in western Canada’s Prairies that might also impact a part of the northwestern U.S. Plains.

A very weak El Niño event or neutral ENSO conditions would likely result in the same kind of anomalous weather pattern around the world with little difference. Very Weak El Niño events in the Northern Hemisphere summer would provide a light boost in atmospheric moisture while allowing other long-term weather patterns to dictate the movement of weather events. In that case, the U.S. long-term trend that will prevail this summer includes a hot, dry summer in the central and southern Plains. Some of that warmth will reach into the southwestern Corn Belt and lower Mississippi River Basin, while a region of slightly cooler-biased temperatures and limited rainfall impact the southeastern U.S. Most other areas in the U.S. Midwest would experience a mix of weather with timely showers and short-term bouts of slightly cooler air in the north and infrequent rain with warmer-biased temperatures. No 2012-style drought is expected in the heart of the Midwest. If conditions turn a little drier-biased, crops are expected to deal with the situation quite well through improved genetics and at least some short-term bouts of cooler air helping to prevent a persistent hot summer from evolving.

La Niña is the only weather phenomenon that can take this year’s prevailing U.S. weather pattern and translate it into a serious dryness and heat problems, and most forecasters have begun to rule that potential out. There are some diehard drought mongers still hanging on to a potential drought of significance, but the next several weeks will either put these forecasters to bed or elevate them to sainthood.

What if El Niño persists?

If El Niño hangs on a little more significantly than once predicted in the spring, an early summer drought might resurface in western Canada since Alberta, western Saskatchewan and portions of Montana are already running notable moisture deficits left over from last year. In addition to that, India would not have another year of widespread dryness, but dryness may evolve in the eastern parts of the nation during the monsoon season while the west sees improving rainfall.

Southeast Asia rainfall will be much more normal in 2016, if neutral ENSO conditions or a very weak El Niño occur during the rainy season. Eastern Australia winter precipitation may be a little light, but no drought is likely. South America weather would also trend more normal in its spring planting season in the third and fourth quarters of this calendar year. South Africa weather will improve as well, but Europe and the western Commonwealth of Independent States may be a little wetter than usual this growing season.

Even though this report comes from the “what-if?” department, it has some potential to transpire. Most likely, if El Niño does not dissipate, it will be weak enough to have a minor influence on mid-year weather, leaving long-term trends from other weather phenomenon in the controlling role for weather.