The hellish La Niña has been incredibly unkind to Southern farmers. It will be a pleasure to kick her out the door. Farmers will likely get their chance to bid farewell and deliver boot to backside later this spring.
When will the end officially occur? “If you have six scientists together, they'll all likely have different ways to measure La Niña's end. When we're talking about La Niña we're mainly talking about how changes in Pacific water temperatures affect circulation in the United States,” says John Grymes, Louisiana state climatologist and a regional climatologist for the Southern Regional Climate Center.
For example, Grymes says oceanographers point out that Pacific water temps are still cooler than normal. In fact, the outlook has those waters cooler through May. From that standpoint, La Niña, while weak, is still around.
But from a circulation angle, especially over the southeastern United States, there is only a hint of La Niña, if that. The rains having returned is a good indicator that at least the importance of La Niña has been dramatically reduced, says Grymes.
We're actually moving into a neutral phase — a period between La Niña and El Niño.
“This is a circular weather pattern and these two entities are flip sides of this cyclical pattern. Next winter, we should be moving into El Niño. That tends to produce conditions on the wet side — especially in the lower Delta,” says Grymes, who works out of Baton Rouge.
Drought no more
Last October, Grymes said the Delta and Southeast were in the midst of a 20-year drought event. Since then, the winter was reported as being wetter and colder than usual. Does the drought situation still hold true?
“It was a cool winter — especially November through January. February tended to be normal or even a tad warmer than normal.
“When the temperatures climbed a bit, the rains returned. The good news is, right now the Delta is in pretty good shape: moisture is evident, soil is in good shape and we've basically eliminated any measure of drought. In fact, in parts of Mississippi there may be too much water. That isn't a huge problem, but there has been some minor flooding. That isn't terribly outside the spring norm,” says Grymes.
A lot of this is certainly related to the continued phasing out of La Niña. The one place where there's a lingering effect of La Niña is in Louisiana's coastal parishes.
Even there, though, there is no longer a full-fledged drought.
“A few more decent rains and even that part of the Delta will be in good shape.”
A good reference source that Grymes references and contributes to regularly is the U.S. Drought Monitor found at: http://enso.unl.edu\monitor\monitor.html.
The map is updated every Thursday and does two things, says Grymes. First, it takes a composite of all the various drought indices and tries to group them regionally into the map. Second, unlike most other drought maps — which are driven by data and computer models — this product includes human qualitative interpretations.
“If farmers look at the current map, they'll see that over the last several weeks, any measure of drought was taken out of Mississippi — including a hint of dryness in the northwest.”
Last fall, Grymes said, states in the Southeast were the worst impacted by drought. How are those states now?
“Things are improving. The area of critical dryness has shifted eastward. Now, most of Alabama is in pretty good shape. Last summer, that state was the core area of the worst drought conditions. The areas of the Southeast that still have significant drought are the Carolinas and — probably the worst drought-stricken part of the country — the peninsula of Florida.”
What was a regional drought that extended from Louisiana to the Atlantic Coast is now focused on the Atlantic Coast — through the Carolinas, Georgia to some extent and Florida.
Only the extreme eastern edge of Alabama is still in a guarded situation, says Grymes.
“What we hope for is that the critical drought conditions will continue to erode. The one place where drought will be an issue is Florida. Over the next 90 days, that region's rainfall isn't really showing promise. They don't need just average rainfall. They need a fairly prolonged run of wetter-than-normal weather.”
Not only is agriculture going to suffer there, but there are water supply troubles being hinted at from the residential and commercial arenas. From Jacksonville down to the Florida Keys, it's going to continue to be a very dry period, says Grymes.
Floridians have also seen tremendous fire problems recently and relief isn't in sight. “One of the things that happens when you have such a long drought — particularly in areas where it's normally wet like the Everglades — is vegetation tends to die off quickly and the fire fuel is suddenly immense.”
Unlike Florida, eastern and central Texas are in good shape, says Grymes. West Texas is still a bit on the dry side. “The southern tip of that state, the Brownsville area, is also on the dry side.”
Last summer, there were major concerns about the health of Louisiana's famed swamps and marshes. Many were bone-dry. With the recent rains, there's been a lot of rebounding in Louisiana's swamps, says Grymes. However, the coastal marshes of Louisiana and Mississippi still have evidence of the drought impact. In Louisiana, experts are saying as much as a fourth of the marsh vegetation won't recover. In some cases, the marsh grasses are simply gone and areas that were once lush have been turned into mud flats. That's a real problem because the vegetation serves as a soil anchor, says Grymes.
“If we get a couple of winter storms or an early tropical storm — keeping in mind coastal Louisiana already has one of the highest erosion rates in the entire country — the likelihood of terrible erosion is high.
“One of the things we're working on down here is a program where coastal scientists are trying to mitigate short-term impacts of these coming storms. We need to look at steps to take until the marsh recovers. If not, some of the gloom-and-doomers are talking about coastal land-loss rates increasing 50 percent or higher.”
Last year was also one of Louisiana's worst forest fire years. In fact, there was a 10-day period last summer when there was more state timberland lost than is normally lost in an entire year.
“Right now, all the fire indices are fine. The ground litter is damp and we're in great shape across the Delta. Looking at the next 30- and 90-day forecasts, both outlooks give us a fair confidence that we should get into mid-spring in great shape for both agriculture and forestry.
“Things look good for the Delta summer, too. One of the reasons is La Niña will no longer be a factor in our weather over the next three to six months. That gives us hope of nearer-to-normal rainfall over that period.”
The fact that rains have returned is a good harbinger of normal rainfall in the Delta over the next couple of months at least. “That's great news for the region. We've been through a lot recently,” says Grymes.