Blizzard will miss parched Neb., again

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, March 4, 2013

A big blizzard will travel across the United States next week, bringing much-needed snow to the Northern Plains and bearing good news for the region’s wheat and corn farmers.

But most of Nebraska, where more than three-quarters of the state is suffering exceptional drought, will not benefit from the precipitation.

“If you could pick out one state that could really use more moisture, it would be Nebraska,” said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the Agriculture Department and a contributor to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly bulletin of drought conditions in the country.

“The north, the northeastern counties, I think, have the best shot,” said Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist with But, he said, the soils will remain dry for the center and south of the state.

The state missed out on two big storm systems that passed through earlier this month. Those storms took the path south, bringing some beneficial moisture to the Central and Southern Plains of Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

Relief for wheat growers

The impacts in Nebraska have been severe. Nearly one-third of the state’s 24 ethanol plants have been shut down. Leaders in the state capital of Lincoln have hastened plans for a new well for the city by several years, according to media reports. Last October, the Army Corps of Engineers reduced streamflow from the Gavins Point hydroelectric dam on the Nebraska-South Dakota border by 68 percent, a move that could affect power generation (ClimateWire, Nov. 21, 2012).

Yesterday’s Drought Monitor indicated that the area of the country in drought conditions has diminished from 47 percent to 45.6 percent.

Next week’s storm will enter the Pacific Northwest this weekend. It will continue through the Northern Rockies, the Northern and Central Plains and the lower Ohio Valley, and could end in the mid-Atlantic or Southeast.

No snow is expected to fall between Nebraska and Texas, said Rippey. He expects the system to bring additional drought relief to the Southeast, especially if moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean feeds into it. From there, the storm will either go out to sea or turn northward, said Sosnowski.

Through last winter and this winter, wheat growers have been desperate for some much-needed moisture to plant their seed before and during the winter dormancy period. Roots need deep, subsoil moisture to survive the winter and grow in the springtime (ClimateWire, Aug. 24, 2012).

‘We’ll take all the moisture we can get’

Eastern Colorado and western Kansas — two wheat-growing regions — also desperately need precipitation but won’t get nearly enough, said Sosnowski.

“I don’t know if they’ll be getting enough to avoid substantial problems in the spring,” he said.

From Montana to Idaho down to Iowa, the region will see light to moderate snowfall, Sosnowski said. The Dakotas are expected to fall right in the path of the storm. South Dakota is completely under drought conditions.

“We’ll take all the moisture that we can get,” said Wayne Smith, executive director of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. A snowstorm could hurt or kill livestock if preparations aren’t made.

“You don’t have time to get the extra feed to them; you don’t have time to move them to a more sheltered area,” said Smith. But with some forewarning, the blizzard will be a welcome relief.

In many cases, snow is better than a quick rainstorm because it melts slowly and can gradually seep into the ground, Sosnowski said. A downpour is more likely to run off frozen winter soil.

However, snow can also be misleadingly dry, as it was in some parts of the Northern and Central Plains earlier this month. It can take as much as 30 inches of snow to yield 1 inch of water, or as little as 8 inches of very wet snow to make 1 inch of water, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

In addition, the frosty soils in the northern United States could be too frozen right now for good soil moisture absorption, Fuchs said. The snowstorms that traced the South earlier this month provided good moisture for wheat farmers in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, but winter is not the optimal time to hydrate the soil in the Midwest or Northern Plains.

Next week’s blizzard could also recharge the soil for moisture in time for spring corn planting.

But the blizzard will only affect a narrow band of the Corn Belt, Rippey said. While Iowa and Illinois will gain the most, Wisconsin and Michigan — states with abnormally dry conditions to severe drought — will hardly get anything.

Nevertheless, said Sosnowski, “from a corn standpoint, we’re in better shape this spring than last spring. Much better shape.”