Nebraska Farmer Logo

The summer outlook for the middle part of the country shows high odds for continued cool and wet conditions.

June 4, 2019

4 Min Read
flooded farmland
ALIGNMENT OF FACTORS: Although it's possible a flood such as the one seen earlier this year could happen again, it's hard to get all those conditions to align. Tyler Harris

By Tyler Williams

Even though we've had some time to let the March blizzard and flood sink in, it's still in the front of many Nebraskans’ minds. I constantly think back to the series of things that led up to that event and ask, "Could the March 2019 flood happen again?" or "Will our weather ever give us a break?"

The flooding event from the bomb cyclone March 13-14 seemingly snuck up on us. Even though there were warnings a few days in advance of this incredibly powerful cyclone, I don’t think anyone realized what types of risks were out there.

Mid-January through early March was one of the coldest and wettest periods in recent record for much of Nebraska. Parts of eastern Nebraska received 20 to 30 inches or more above normal snowfall, and the average temperature in the state was 10 to 15 degrees F below normal for the 60-day period.

The extremely cold temperatures froze the soil down to a few feet and created several feet of ice on top of lakes and rivers.

The ice proved to be the most detrimental factor in the March 13-14 event. The frozen ground prevented any moisture from infiltrating into the soil, creating a near 100% runoff rate, exacerbated in some areas by steep terrain.

Even saturated soils will allow some percolation through the profile, but the ice-packed soil "sped up" the runoff at rates that are hard to quantify. The ice-covered lakes and rivers prevented this water from evacuating quickly and added to the destruction typically seen by water alone.

The timing of this event could not have been much worse for many livestock producers. The cold and wet winter dwindled feed supplies and multiplied the energy needed by livestock just to maintain their condition.

The four to six weeks before the bomb cyclone left livestock producers in tough shape, and then this storm came during calving season and took out large portions of cow-calf herds.

If animals survived, the next challenge was dealing with mud, sickness and very little grass growth in pastures. Springlike conditions couldn’t come fast enough, and I'm not sure they ever did.

Figure 1. February-minimum-temperature-trends-Nebraska-State-Climate-Office

Could it happen again?

It's possible this type of event could happen again, although it's hard to get all those conditions to align. A big component was the extended cold. We have been on a cooling trend in February for the past 30 years (see graphic above), even though our long-term trend shows strong warming.

Our late-winter pattern is proving to be "persistent," whether warm or cold, and lately it has been cold. This persistence creates extreme conditions, and extreme cold and wet is one of them. The transition time from the extreme cold, snow and ice to springlike weather systems is a key element to an event such as this.

We need that time for snow and ice to melt and run off before we get heavy precipitation events. I know I will be paying closer attention to ice and snow cover as we move into spring in the future.

Figure 2. precipitation-outlook-NOAA

El Niño expected through summer

The outlook for the summer does not show a break from the dominant pattern from the past nine months, as cool and wet conditions (see graphic above) still have the highest odds for the middle part of the country.

The key difference is cool and wet during the summer means something completely different than in February. Cool and wet is not too bad for crop production and rangeland production, so long as it isn’t too cool and there is still plenty of sunlight.

These conditions are predicted by forecasters because of the persistent wet pattern this spring, high soil moisture values in the region, and the expected El Niño that is predicted to continue through the summer.

Even though El Niño conditions have a limited effect on our region in the summer, it tilts the odds toward wet and cool, which we've already had plenty of this spring.

Areas always are at risk for "flash" droughts during the summer, so monitoring conditions is still necessary. As we move into the fall and winter, the potential for an El Niño will play a larger role in the forecasts.

Williams is a Nebraska Extension educator and ag climatologist.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like