WASHINGTON — Drought that has shriveled crops and sparked fires in bone-dry forests will persist and could even worsen across the Southwest and central and southern Plains through at least June, US government forecasters said Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its spring weather forecast that these regions, which have already seen thousands of acres go up in flames, should brace for a “significant” wildfire season in 2006 as conditions become more severe.
“We need to monitor this drought situation very closely,” said David Johnson, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service division.
The return of La Nina, an unusual cooling of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures which is the flip side of El Nino, could make the Atlantic tropical storm season especially dangerous.
Indeed, some forecasters have already warned that the number of storms may top the record set just last year.
La Nina developed during the winter and has contributed to the dryness plaguing much of the southern United States.
“It’s showing no signs of declining…and the odds that it’s going to last into late summer have gone up,” said Ed O’Lenic, meteorologist with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
He said La Nina tends to enhance weather “favorable to the development of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic.”
Last year was the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, with 27 named storms and 15 hurricanes. NOAA previously warned that the hurricane season — which typically peaks between Aug. 1 and late October — could be active again in 2006.
SEVERE DROUGHT TO LINGER
Severe drought is blanketing the Southwest into the southern Plains and northward into Kansas. Heavy rains have eased dryness for now in Illinois, Iowa and extending south to Arkansas.
But weather forecasters said “ongoing drought concerns may linger.”
A scarcity of rain since last fall has parched hard red winter wheat and dried up stock ponds and pastures in the southern Plains. A storm expected to drop up to 2.5 inches of rain this weekend in the Great Plains could be too late to save the winter wheat crop, government forecasters said.
“It kind of remains to be seen how much recovery there will be in wheat. Some of that wheat is getting to…frankly the point of no return” said Brad Rippey, a USDA meteorologist.
“But for just about everything else including pre-planting moisture for summer crops, pasture revival, wildfire control, the rain is nothing but good,” he added.
Improved soil moisture will bode well for US soft red winter areas while providing much-needed relief for corn and soybean crops later this spring.
Spring also will bring above normal temperatures for the Southwest eastward into the Southeast with cooler-than-normal conditions for the northern Plains and northern Rockies.
Below-normal precipitation is expected for much of the central and southern Plains, as well as the Southeast and Gulf Coast. Above normal precipitation is favored across the northern Plains and Great Lakesregion.