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June 24, 2013
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5 Questions: Nebraska state climatologist talks past, present future

Q. Weather across much of the Midwest and Plains is described as “unpredictable.” Does the weather in your neck of the woods fluctuate more than in other regions, or are there other areas of the U.S. that are equally unpredictable?

A. We would like to think that our weather is more unpredictable than other regions of the country. That being said, every region of the country will experience unique climate criteria that are not common to other geographic locations.

For Nebraska proper, we are one of the 10 states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas) that comprise the High Plains region of the U.S. This is a region where annual precipitation decreases an inch for every 20-25 miles one heads west.

In addition, temperature swings in excess of 120 degrees per year are common, especially in the northern half of this area.

For example, the record high in Nebraska is 118 degrees, while the record low is -47 degrees. Only North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana have greater temperature ranges (when looking at period of record). In an average year, most locations will experience a 100-120 degree swings in a given year. Blizzard activity is common from Nebraska northward (North Dakota, Montana), where an average of three-plus blizzard events are experienced per year.

Nebraska averages just over one per year. This entire High Plains region has the highest tornado frequency with the core situated from south central Kansas through north central Oklahoma.

Q. Have the last couple years represented the most extreme changes you’ve seen?

A. The 2012 drought was the worst that I have experienced in my tenure at the University of Nebraska. Prior to that, 1983 and 1988 were the worst I experienced in my lifetime (both while was in Iowa, during graduate school). 1993 was another unusual year in regards to massive flooding from excessive late spring and summer rainfall (similar to 1992, but entered the year with much wetter soil conditions than 1992) that was common across the vast majority of the corn belt.

Of course 2011 was devastating along the Missouri river due to a six-month long flood event that was the result of excessive moisture (snow/rain) in the headwater region (Montana).

Q. Along with temperature and precipitation fluctuations, what have been some of the other interesting climate occurrences that have happened recently?

A. Massive rangeland fires the past couple of years due to dry lightning strikes. Last year, over 500,000 acres burned representing the worst year since records have been taken.

Large declines in water tables where irrigation ran non-stop from May to August and depleted local aquifers. The earliest dormancy break that I can remember occurred last spring (30-45 days ahead of schedule).

The excessive heavy snow accumulations recorded during the 2010-2011 winter that helped eliminate long-term reservoir declines on the Platte river watershed (Seminoe, Pathfinder, Glendo and McConaughy reservoirs) and end water restrictions that had been in place since 2003.

Q. Predicting the weather in Nebraska is difficult enough. What are some of the other challenges facing the Nebraska Climate Center and other climate researchers?

A. Funding is always a problem, has always been a problem, and will likely continue to be a problem in the future. With national funding still uncertain due to sequestration, I and many of my colleagues are uncertain as to the impact it will have on climate/weather networks. The oldest data set of climate data that is used on a frequent basis to analyze trends is the cooperative observation network. Exclusively a volunteer network, many stations have nearly 120 years of climate data available for analysis. Finding volunteers to replace retiring or deceased observers is challenging enough, but if funds become limited, it is unknown how much pull this data set will have over more sexy NOAA projects like Doppler radar.

Weather volatility is always challenging and I don’t expect that these trends will change in the immediate future, regardless what one’s position in regards to climate change is. This volatility will make it exceptionally difficult to determine how crops will respond, especially since genetic modification of seed stock changes to address additional or changing environmental factors.

Also, population demands on finite resources will only increase over time as more mouths compete for the same resource. In the absence of climate change, our vulnerability would increase as an expanding population puts additional pressure on limited resources.

For the High Plains region, the largest single constraint will be water and how to effectively manage that water so it is available for future generations.

Q. What is the weather outlook for the growing season for farmers?

A. Prospects have improved for Nebraska with the recent moisture activity (past couple months).

Significant drought improvement has been noted across the eastern third of the state aided by below normal April temperatures (4th coldest since 1896) and abundant moisture during April and May.

Crops are running 10-14 days behind normal, while they were three-plus weeks ahead of normal last year. With the cool conditions and crop delays, crop water use has been below normal. That being said, crops will reach their critical pollination phase two-plus weeks behind normal (with normal temps going forward). This will leave crops more vulnerable (especially corn), since the projections would indicate that the much of the crop will pollinate during the statistical peak of the summer heat (third week of July).

Even though crop water demands are low right now, most of the high-demand period lies ahead. Thus a return to heat and below normal moisture still has the potential to severely limit production, although crops do appear to be in better shape this year in comparison to last year.

Outlooks by CPC still hint at a drier and warmer than normal pattern materializing for the remainder of the summer. If it verifies, then further crop yield destruction is likely. If the past two months replicate going forward, then yield prospects will likely come in ahead of preseason expectations. If below normal temperatures continue through August, then a sizeable portion of eastern Nebraska and the central corn belt would be vulnerable to early freeze damage (corn only). ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Oct 16, 2013 02:51PM Published Jul 29, 2013 09:37AM Copyright 2013 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.