Winter likely to be warmer and dry

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WASHINGTON – Early December’s early dose of snow and ice in the Southeast and along the East Coast may be a glimpse of weather to come during winter 2002-03, thanks to a moderate-strength El Niño digging in its heels.

Top weather and climate experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say El Niño will set the stage for increased storm activity across the South.

NOAA officials have updated the agency’s winter outlook, first issued in September, and said El Niño remains a key influence.

“This is a classic El Niño pattern,” said retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.

Brewing in South. “El Niño is one of the driving forces behind these kinds of winter storm systems, which develop in the South and head east. But in some cases this winter, these storms could bring more rain to parts of the East,” Lautenbacher said.

“El Niño will shape weather patterns through spring 2003.”

What is El Niño? El Niño occurs when sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean remain above average for more than several months. This usually triggers a chain reaction of atmospheric and weather changes around the globe.

Forecast. Based on agency’s latest El Niño forecast and its updated December-February winter outlook, forecasters said the nation can expect warmer-than-normal temperatures across the northern half of the country, wetter and stormier-than-normal weather across the south from California through the Carolinas, and drier-than-normal conditions in the northern Rockies and Midwest.

“Over time, these precipitation patterns can reduce lingering drought conditions that have plagued the southeast and southwest in recent years,” said retired Brig. Gen. Jack Kelly, director of the NOAA National Weather Service.

However, he added that drought may intensify in the northern Rockies and parts of the Midwest.

Lingering drought. Kelly said 9 percent of the area east of the Mississippi River remains in drought, while 53 percent of the region west of the river remains in drought.

In September, approximately 55 percent of each region was affected by drought.

“El Niño most strongly impacts U.S. weather patterns during the winter by shifting the jet stream and storm track toward the southern tier of the country,” said Jim Laver, director of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

“As a result, increased storminess is expected across the southern United States,” said Laver.

The U.S. 2002/2003 winter outlook for December-February calls for:

* Warmer-than-normal temperatures across the northern half of the country.

* Equal chances for temperatures to be above normal, near normal, or below normal in the southern half of the continental United States.

* Drier than normal conditions in the northern Rockies, including Montana and northern parts of Idaho and Wyoming.

* Drier than normal conditions in the Midwest, including eastern Iowa, eastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

* Wetter-than-normal weather pattern across the South from California to the Carolinas, including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, southwest Utah, southeast Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, southern Nebraska, western Missouri, western Arkansas, Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and eastern North Carolina.

* States and regions in the continental United States not mentioned above will have equal chances for precipitation to be above normal, near normal, or below normal.

* Warmer and wetter-than-normal conditions in southern Alaska.

* Cooler and drier-than-normal conditions in Hawaii.

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