Weather a topic climatologist loves to share with ranchers
By Dave Bergmeier
Wherever farmers and ranchers gather in the nation’s midsection, whether after church, in a coffee shop or at a cattle convention, weather inevitably works its way into the conversation.
That was true at the Nov. 9 Kansas Cattlemen’s Association Annual Convention and Trade Show in Dodge City, Kan., as Kansas State Climatologist Mary Knapp, based in Manhattan, gave a presentation on the “Winter Weather Outlook.” Her eye was on the next four months. While the focus may be on Kansas, she noted that farmers and ranchers have vested interests in other states and they track weather conditions around the world.
An early October blizzard that hit western South Dakota killed an estimated 30,000 cattle, which has a long-term impact in that state and throughout the Midwest. Ranchers also lease pasture lands, and the prolonged drought has forced them to look at marketing decisions in a different light based on availability of grass.
Kansas mirrors other states in the cattle and grain belt. In pockets in each state there are areas that have had heavy moisture while others have had practically nil in the rain gauge.
Knapp noted late summer and early fall rains provided welcome relief to many Kansans, who have experienced all sides of Mother Nature. Eastern Kansas is in better shape, and in southeast Kansas rain was so abundant that it has substantially slowed the harvest of sorghum and soybeans. Meanwhile the western third of Kansas continues to be considered a region faced with a lingering drought.
“Western Kansas has improved a little bit,” Knapp said. “It is not great but it is a lot better than at this point last year.”
Beneficial rains have helped but there are some places that have seen little or no relief, she said.
The dry season
There is not much chance of breaking a drought in the winter in the Plains because most moisture comes in the form of snow in during the 90-day period of December through February. One inch of snow usually translates to about a tenth inch of rain.
“Snow is not bad news,” she said. “Snow is easier on cattle than a cold rain or freezing rain.”
The best scenario is that a drought does not worsen in the winter.
“The hope is you have a normal winter so you won’t lose any ground,” Knapp said, adding the good news for Kansas producers is the upcoming 90-day period is considered precipitation neutral.
“If you have to have a dry period, then winter is the time to have it,” she said.
She said wind does dry out vegetation and can provide a high fire risk in the spring. Pasture fires can be difficult to fight and scorches land needed for livestock to graze.
Fire risk is also possible in the late fall and winter. A recent recording in Tribune, Kan., area indicated the humidity level was at 4 percent.
When conditions reach that point, Knapp said, “A spark can go a long ways.”
March begins a period in which moisture tends to become more of a possibility to forecast, Knapp said.
March can sometimes provide both snow and rain, Knapp said, which can help recharge subsoil, pastures and ponds but can increase stress during calving season.
Tracking the jet streams
Forecasters and climatologists track other forces that can change jet streams and weather patterns, from El NiÃ±os to La NiÃ±as. Changes in jet streams can drive arctic cold farther north and east rather than settling on the southern Plains. El NiÃ±as can provide beneficial moisture for those who reside in the High Plains. La NiÃ±as can make the same regions drier.
The biggest variable is where the Pacific jet stream sets up, Knapp said, that determines whether it has the potential for opening up moisture or sealing it off. Those who live in western Kansas talk of the storms that have origins in the Southwest that develop, and as they move eastward they are termed the ”Four Corner Storms,” which can dump widespread snow in the western part of the country’s midsection.
How the jet stream sets up may allow for significant amounts of snow to fall in southwest Kansas but leave north central Kansas without moisture and very cold temperatures.
“You cannot predict (the impact of) a specific storm,” she said, but forecasters are better able to define how it will track as it gets closer.
The probability of an El NiÃ±a for the winter is considered neutral in early November, she said. Many Midwesterners recalled the El NiÃ±o period of 1990-1999, which provided one of the wettest decades on record.
Other research tools
Weather experts look at other research now available, Knapp said. The Madden-Julian Oscillation tropical disturbance is one example. The MJO starts in the global tropics and heads eastward with a cycle of 30 to 60 days, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service and National Centers for Environmental Prediction. The MJO does not cause El NiÃ±os or La NiÃ±as but can contribute to the development of El NiÃ±os and La NiÃ±as.
Knapp told about a Pacific Decadal Oscillation that is rarely mentioned in the media but has caught the attention of those who study weather and weather patterns. It studies patterns and variables in the Pacific Ocean region.
Even with all the tools at her disposal, the one conclusion she can draw with certainly is that the drought future “is still unknown.”
Following her formal presentation, the state climatologist answered questions from the audience.
One question asked was about the effectiveness of cloud seeding projects in the Plains. The earliest studies began in the 1970s, she said, and if the goal was to try to increase moisture, then the program was unsuccessful. However, it did show some success in reducing the size of hail. Large hail stones can heavily damage crops in the spring and summer.
Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines on Nov. 8 will be one for the records, Knapp said. It had extended periods in which the wind speed exceeded 170 miles per hour and dumped “rainfall amounts that were unbelievable.”
Haiyan struck in a region that recently had been hit by an earthquake, the climatologist said, which adds to the misery.
As a point of clarification, she said typhoons and hurricanes are virtually the same type of storm. Their only difference is their origins. A typhoon is a storm that originates in the Pacific Ocean, and a hurricane starts in the Atlantic. In 2013, the Atlantic region has not been active, which is in contrast to an extremely active Pacific region.
Knapp said it is premature to say storms are more numerous or violent than 50 or 100 years ago. Satellite and technology have helped provide better pictures of storms. Data collection and observation is much more sophisticated now. In the early years of data collection, small tornadoes were not reported in the Plains, for example.
Today, with modern phones and cameras, videos and pictures are readily available to record almost any type of weather event.
There are some researchers who believe that Tornado Alley has shifted from a Texas to Kansas line to a newer path of Louisiana to Iowa. Knapp finds the discussion interesting but she was reluctant to say that was the case. She noted the Greensburg, Kan., tornado, was an EF-5 tornado that struck in May 2007.
Mother Nature always needs watching, she said, because some of the most infamous weather incidents have occurred on what appeared to be benign days.
On Nov. 11, 1911, in the central heartland, the temperature had reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit, then rapidly fell and became the precursor for tornadoes and then blizzard conditions in the Plains and Midwest. A similar event occurred in November 1940.
Knapp told ranchers she also found weather trends and forecasts interesting from other regions of the world, particularly in South America where corn and soybeans are major products She encouraged farmers and ranchers to check the www.usda.gov/oce website.
Also during the annual Kansas Cattlemen Association convention at the United Wireless Arena, producers received updates on low-stress cattle handling techniques, marketing strategies and updates on cattle production and managing pastures. A trade show gave convention-goers an opportunity to visit with vendors.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached by phone at 620-227-1822 or by email at email@example.com.