Weather tops agenda at beef symposium

Brian Bledsoe, climate and long-range forecast specialist with Weather5280, gave attendees a 2021 weather outlook at the Feb. 17 at the Marshall Frasier Beef Symposium.

Bledsoe most often shares information that can help farmers and ranchers to better manage their risk.

“We’ve obviously had some challenging times around recently due to moisture, but we’re not the only ones and that’s probably one of the biggest things that bothers me about kind of where we sit,” he said.

The long-term drought indicator puts into perspective where we’ve been and where we are, but also where “we have to go to get out of this thing.”

“You can see that this drought situation is quite regional,” Bledsoe said. “And it not only encompasses all of eastern Colorado and encompasses the western slope. Most of the Four Corner states are in terrible shape right now and even down into west Texas.”

Some areas are faring better than others, and in the past 60 days in terms of moisture, it’s been drier than average in Colorado. A few areas are seeing a deficit of about an inch, and others are a few inches short.

“But if you look at that map, you say well, it looks to me like northeast Colorado, far northwest Kansas, southwest Nebraska, there has been seeing some moisture,” Bledsoe said. “Absolutely. It’s not enough to pull us out of the drought.”

Recent snows in the region haven’t brought much moisture because of the make up of the snow that fell. Dry snow doesn’t do any good to move drought ratings.

“The moisture content in that was basically nil. I mean, if you stacked up about five, six inches of snow, your liquid equivalent to that was about a 10th of an inch of moisture,” he said. “It was just absolute dry, powdery fluff.”

The role ocean and sea surface temperatures play in weather patterns and precipitation is something that merits being looked at, he said. Across the central Pacific Ocean, indications of a La Nina episode are showing. At last year’s event Bledsoe warned of this same type of set up, and predicted we’d likely see the same in 2021.

Bledsoe admits a lot of times during a La Nina episode, most of the Pacific Ocean ends up colder than average, but that’s not the case this time. There’s still a good deal of warmer than average water in the north Pacific that has made this La Nina behave a little bit differently than others.

“But in general, the overall pattern has acted to perpetuate drought for the areas that have had drought,” he said. “And that we’ll likely continue to see drought at least in the foreseeable future.”

Looking at the computer models used for forecasting, Bledsoe sees most all the models showing the weather coming out of the La Nina episode. This normally happens during the spring with a seasonal shift that normally happens. There are still a few models showing cooler than average weather through the remainder of 2021.

For long-term patterns he looks toward the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and how ocean temps have been. When the PDO is in a negative phase, or warmer ocean temps, drought often becomes a concern in the western High Plains and southwestern United States. When the temps flip, and become cooler, the rains start.

“So this is not a coincidence when this happens when the Pacific is cool,” he said. “It usually favors more frequent La Nina position, more La Nina patterns, and that’s when we suffer from drought a little bit more.”

On the Atlantic side, the Atlantic Multidecadal Ossilation and the weather has been in an AMO positive situation for about 25 years now, Bledsoe said.

“AMO has a little longer life cycle, he said. “We could possibly see a full on flip here within the next five years or so, if history has anything to say about that.”

So how does this tie together? Currently the PDO is negative, and AMO is positive. That’s where drought frequency is enhanced.

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“It’s no surprise that a large part of Texas was suffering from drought, especially the west side of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, southern Nevada, out in California having real problems," he said. “And if you live here in eastern Colorado, in the western High Plains, you’re thinking—I’m going to be dealing with drought about 75% of the time, and you’re absolutely right.”

Bledsoe said this really shouldn’t come as a surprise because those in eastern Colorado and western High Plains are already farming and ranching in a desert.

“It takes a special set of circumstances to actually put us in a net positive in terms of moisture,” he said.

When levels of moisture in these areas were net positive, one would have to go back to the 1990s to see a long term pattern that supported above average moisture in the western High Plains.

“Now we had little blip here and they’re back in late 2014, 15, 16, when the Pacific was in a very positive state,” he said. “We dealt with that, but since then we’ve kind of shut that off just a little bit.”

While these tools are not a perfect roadmap, it gives a “very good idea of where we should sit for future planning when the oceans are stacked in a particular way.”

“Because if you are a farmer or rancher in the western High Plains, you need to know about these phases in terms of how you manage your risk,” he said. “Not only with your land, but your cattle, your equipment, inventory, your bank accounts, so on and so forth.”

Forecast for months to come

For the month of March, Bledsoe is seeing fairly pessimistic models from his tools. The PDO and AMO are favoring drier than average conditions across most of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and back to the west, across Southern California with the wetter and average conditions prevailing up in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the northern Rockies.

In April, he doesn’t expect there to be a lot of change from March.

“In fact, if anything, the drier than average signal strengthens and pushes a little bit further to the north,” he said. “La Nina’s rarely kind to us during the spring months. And at least as far as this particular model is concerned, it doesn’t look like that is going to change a whole lot.”

In May and June, he sees much of the same story.

“Drought begets drought,” Bledsoe said.

The drier the ground gets, the faster things heat up. The wind will stir in the atmosphere and dries things out.

Going on into July, there are signs things could relax some, but the dry signal is pushed farther north possibly. If the monsoon season develops remains a big question mark.

“To bank on a monsoon season to yank us out of a drought—you can do that,” he said. “But boy, it really narrows the timeframe in the calendar year to where we can reap the benefits of that moisture.”

In August, he doesn’t really see a tip one way or the other. The farther one goes out in the forecast, it largely is going to be more inaccurate.

Bledsoe has been speaking for the last 10 months to a year, on how the weather pattern really isn’t that mucho f a surprise because the north Pacific isn’t as cold as it typically is and with La Nina that could mean something different. If it behaves differently, there’s a chance of some better moisture.

He also throws out a disclaimer any time he speaks at an event.

“It’s the future. Future’s a hard business especially when it comes to weather,” he said. “If nothing else, something that’s been encouraging for some of us is that we have seen at least a few storms come through. But they’ve largely underperformed and they have not erased the drought.”

He believes the deck is stacked against some in the High Plains. He wants farmers and ranchers to use all the tools and information about to their benefit.

He suggests using weather, especially long-range weather forecasting as part of a risk management toolbox, otherwise you’re just missing the boat.

“I will also qualify that if you are depending on weather apps on your phone to make risk management decisions for your business, you’re also missing the boat,” he said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].