Forecaster says drought will get worse before it gets better
By Kylene Scott
A former ranch kid turned meteorologist spoke to farmers and ranchers at the Colorado Ag Classic, held in Loveland, Colo., mid-December. Brian Bledsoe is the chief meteorologist/climatologist at KKTV 11 News in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was the main speaker during the Dealing with Drought section of the meeting. He also does extensive long-range forecasting and helps farmers and ranchers, insurance companies and others with weather sensitive plans.
Bledsoe often gets questioned about what is going on with the drought. In areas near Colorado--the western High Plains, western Kansas, western Nebraska and parts of the Corn Belt--those areas have real issues, he said. Recent moisture in the Dakotas and other areas have given some hope, but Bledsoe warns not to get too hopeful just yet.
"When you're dealing with a drought that size, it's a regional problem," Bledsoe said. "When you have a regional problem with weather patterns and drought, it magnifies what an existing drought would already mean for your locale."
Growing up in southeast Colorado, Bledsoe said he hasn't seen it as dry as it is at his parents' place in his lifetime. Winter pastures are bare, and what remains of their cattle herd is going to the sale soon.
"People are selling their cattle, and I've talked to several clients of mine this week because they're ready to sell. They've had it, they're done, and I can completely empathize with them, 'cause nobody got rich feeding cattle hay, and the way hay is right now, it makes it doubly tough," he said.
Because they get the most press, La Nina and El Nino are the most recognizable weather anomalies to people. El Nino is the abnormal warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, right off the coast of South America.
"When those waters are warm, what that produces is a very persistent jet stream rolling right off into the Pacific Ocean into the southwestern U.S.," Bledsoe said. "And usually when we have El Nino, the southern third at least of the United States is cooler and wetter than normal."
With El Nino, storms come in from the southwest and are usually wetter and have a higher frequency of producing moisture for southern Colorado. Consequently, there's the opposite phase with La Nina, he said.
"You can see basically the complete opposite weather pattern. Where it once was wet, it's dry and it's hot, and whenever it's dry and hot to our south, that's where we get our moisture from here in Colorado," Bledsoe said.
Colorado gets moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and from neighboring states to the south and southeast. If those states are dry and their ground is dry, then there's no ambient moisture to get storms going to move up and give some moisture to southern Colorado and really the whole state. Sustained regular moisture will help erase what's going on with the weather map, he said.
"While we're not technically in an El Nino or a La Nina, we're in La Nada right now. It's kind of what it is," Bledsoe said. "The drought becomes the driver in our weather patterns. So, drought feeds on drought and the longer the drought's there and the longer we don't recharge the soil with the moisture, the worse it's going to get. We're probably going to get a whole lot worse before we get better."
At the time of the meeting, some mid-December storms were predicted for Colorado, and Bledsoe feared they would get past the drought-stricken areas that needed them the most and then blow up and produce some moisture outside of southeast Colorado. He believes the weather patterns will continue to be much of the same--dry.
"This is very troubling to me. Very troubling to me because we are not changing the pattern for the better," Bledsoe said. "We're kind of reverting back to what caused the problem in the first place. Not completely, don't get me wrong. But it's troubling to me nonetheless."
Bledsoe said ocean water temperatures drive the weather patterns, and when the oceans and atmosphere work in tandem, the right things can happen--rain.
"When you're in a drought like this, the drought becomes the driver until something significant comes through," Bledsoe said. "In order to have El Nino or La Nina, you have to have either warmer or colder than normal water for a three-month period. So you have to be sustained."
Bledsoe discussed a couple of different computer models, and pointed out that four months ago, none of the models were even suggesting the fact weather could revert back to a La Nina pattern.
"It's been a pretty radical change, and to be honest with you, it's been pretty oppressive kind of a change," Bledsoe said. "In order to be a long-range forecaster you kind of have to be a weather historian. And history is one of our best teachers when it comes to a lot of things, and weather one of them."
Bledsoe doesn't remember this kind of change ever happening, and it makes his job as a long-range forecaster and a planner extremely difficult right now.
"When those complex things are kind of out of phase sometimes the simplest answers are staring at you right in the face," he said. "Nothing aggravates me more as a long-range forecaster than to just hear long-range forecasts talk about El Nino or La Nina because there are so many different things that come into play. It's not just about those two."
There are a number of ocean oscillations that play a big role in the weather in the United States, he said, and the Madden-Julian Oscillation is one of the more important ones. Strong MJO activity often indicates the development of El Nino in six to 12 months, and it can result in bringing some good moisture producing storms to the western U.S. because of its direct connection to the tropics.
"The transition from La Nina that produced the severe drought (in 2011)--that little short-term El Nino that we observed in the spring and early summer--that transition--allowed MJO to get active and basically cured the drought in all of Texas," Bledsoe said. "That's pretty impressive that something like that could actually do that (MJO activity). (It's) most active during the transition between La Nina and El Nino."
MJO activity is least active during strong El Nino and strong La Nina episodes. Lately the MJO has been very inactive, Bledsoe said, and that means conditions in Colorado and other states are very dry. Some forecasters are saying it will change, but he is not so sure.
"You know, I think there will be some storms, but you look at what's happened lately, storms come in, skip right over the western Plains, and they'll start to blow up in southeast Texas and then they really get going," Bledsoe said. "For folks in west Texas, the Panhandle region, southeast Colorado and Southwest Kansas not so much."
Other oscillations that have big influence involve the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and their fluctuations play a big role with the weather. Both go through cold and warm phases. The Pacific is bigger and it fluctuates in a much slower time frame, and once the Pacific gets locked into its phase, it's there for a while--like 25 to 30 years--if not a little more.
"How many farmers or ranchers do we have in here that are under 30 years old today? Anybody? You guys better pay attention to what I'm about to tell you here because you may be wanting to look for a new line of work," Bledsoe said. "These oscillations when they get locked in become extremely problematic for us getting moisture here in Colorado. We are reliving the 50s right now."
In the 1950s the Atlantic Ocean was warm and the Pacific was cold, and according to Bledsoe, whenever the Atlantic is warm and the Pacific is cold, there are drought problems. When the oceans are both cold, it's colder. During most of the 1990s and early 2000s the Pacific came out of its cold phase and warmed up.
"If the Pacific is warm you have more El Ninos. You have more frequent and longer lasting El Ninos, which are usually decent for us here and benefitting us with some moisture," Bledsoe said. "At the same time, the Atlantic was kind of asleep."
In 2005 the Pacific slipped back into its cold phase, meaning another 20 years before it shifts phase again. The Atlantic has been warm for a while now, and will probably shift in the next 3 to 10 years.
"There's really no perfect road map for this. But history kind of gives you an idea," Bledsoe said. "When the Atlantic is warm and the Pacific is cold we get drought. What happens when the Pacific is cold and the Atlantic is getting ready to switch?"
Bledsoe thinks there will be wet years scattered here and there, but the way it looks to him the dry years will likely outweigh the number of wet years.
"If you do not have a drought plan for your outfit, you better get one," Bledsoe said. "We got one for my folks back in 2005. They sold half the herd by July, and they're going to sell the rest of them here pretty soon."
Using Texas as an example, Bledsoe said farmers and ranchers there got emotional with their business and insisted that it was going to rain, and kept feeding their cattle expensive hay.
"I advised some people that just sold out. They're done. Done. What I'm trying to tell you is that's kind of where we are, and a lot of you have already been there within this past year or so," Bledsoe said. "If you're on the fence about some things, and you don't necessarily have anything crafted out or planned, it's a real good time to get that done. Especially for you younger guys."
Bledsoe stressed the importance of having a drought plan and being prepared for what might happen.
"So while I'm giving you all this wonderful news here before Christmas time, some people say we're giving a glass basically empty. I say no, we're really not. We're giving you a glass that's full. It's full of planning information that you can use for your business," Bledsoe said. "It may be bad news, but it's information that you can at least have an educated guess about what to expect going forward even if it isn't this year, but the years going forward."
For parts of Colorado in the future, Bledsoe thinks it will mainly be a dry winter with drought remaining an issue. Some possible relief may come in March, but it might be farther north than where it's needed in the southeastern part of the state.
"The longer the ground stays uncovered, the drier and the warmer it gets. Which means the faster we come out of winter. Which means the faster the jet stream goes north. Which means that's where the storms go," Bledsoe said. "So if we don't have moisture in the ground, then don't have any snow cover on the ground that means the storm track is going north quick. That's why I'm a little bit skeptical."
Bledsoe is afraid that with the storm track so far north, southeast Colorado will be unlucky when it comes to moisture, especially if it continues to stay warm. But he believes there is a better chance for storms April through June. But July to September may offer the best break for drought. The remainder of the year depends on a couple things, he said.
"These months (October to December) greatly depend on the monsoon because if we don't recharge the subsoil moisture and get that moisture in the ground on a regular basis, this is a self-defeating prophecy," Bledsoe said. "This thing will just kind of keep cycling until something truly huge comes through and finally breaks it. But I would still guard against drought and obviously play it safe, even during this time."
The seasonal change only helps so much, and computer weather models are in pretty good agreement for the continuation of the regional drought.
"Winter looks very dry to me and it has me really concerned about spring," Bledsoe said. "Drought feeds on drought--and I really can't say this enough when talking about this."
Bledsoe warns, don't get too focused on the La Nina, El Nino or anything like that. Dealing with the current weather situation and the environment it has created is more important.
"As far as planning purposes are concerned, I'm going to plan for dry and hope for wet. And I think that's what everybody needs to do right now. That's what I'm advising my clients to do," Bledsoe said. "Because if you get the rain, everybody's going to be happy, right?"
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.