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Spring Climate Outlook Unclear Amid S.D. Drought Concerns
South Dakota Ag Connection - 02/23/2021

In like a lion, out like a lamb? The climate forecast for March appears to be up in the air for both temperature and precipitation, with the potential for some swings in either direction. According to the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) outlook, there is no clear, consistent signal if South Dakota will end up warmer or colder than average, or wetter or drier than average next month.

SDSU Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards says this "equal chances" forecast is not uncommon for March, as the transition from winter to summer patterns is often difficult to forecast with many ups and downs.

"One factor in the spring forecast is the role of La Nina, as February has finally brought the cold temperatures that often accompany this ocean-atmosphere weather pattern," Edwards says. "As the spring season progresses, however, the strength of La Nina will wane and is expected to turn to neutral conditions. This means the sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean near the equator is likely to return to average by the end of May and will have less of an impact on the jet stream pattern over the United States."

For March through May, Edwards says there is more confidence that most of South Dakota will be warmer than average.

"The area favored to be warmer includes all but the far northern tier along the North Dakota border," Edwards says. "This outlook looks more promising in April and May, given the uncertainty in March."

Looking ahead to summer, the NOAA report anticipates warmer than average temperatures for the middle of the year across the entire state of South Dakota.

"Similarly, drier than average conditions seem more likely in the southern half of the state in mid-to-late spring," Edwards says. "This is not good news for pasture, grass, forages and crops that rely heavily on spring rainfall. April and May are two of the wettest months for much of South Dakota and are critical for a good start to summer grazing and total productivity of the land."

According to the NOAA outlook, drier than average conditions in the summer season should be expected as well, especially in western South Dakota.

"It's a good time to start, or to continue, keeping track of precipitation on your own farm or ranch," Edwards says. "Knowing what your local snow and rainfall has been, compared to previous years, can provide an early warning to potential reductions in grass or crop production due to drought. There is very limited soil moisture to buffer our grasses and row crops against drought this year. As a result, rainfall in our growing season will be more important than in many recent years where there has been an excess of moisture and rainfall."

With the three-month climate outlook in mind, NOAA has projected drought to hold steady across the state in the coming spring season.

"Currently, soils are frozen to depths of two-to-four feet or more and have very limited ability to take in any moisture from melted snow, despite the dryness that has been carried from the fall season," Edwards says. "There may be areas of both improvements and degradations as we meander through the early growing season. Without consistent rainfall, widespread significant improvements in the current drought status may be elusive."


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