Winter Storms Not Enough to Stop Drought

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Snow blanketed southern portions of the Midwest for the second time in a week Tuesday. While the snowmelt from the storms won't be enough to end the drought, some meteorologists and researchers are cautiously optimistic that the dry spell has peaked.

"I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing," said meteorologist Paul Douglas, founder of Weather Nation, a weather outsourcing company in Minnesota.

For the first time in six to eight months, the flow of moisture that's been producing the recent sloppy storms has been coming from the Gulf of Mexico instead of the Pacific Ocean. Tapping that moisture from the Gulf is critical because these air masses often bring moisture, including summer thunderstorms.

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"If we can keep this pattern up, it may take the edge off the drought and give farmers a fighting chance," Douglas said. "The big question is, will the storms keep coming when the frost is totally out of the ground?"

While snow can produce a significant amount of water, not much of it will penetrate the ground if the surface is frozen. Instead, most of it will run off into the streets and sewers. And that frost is 20-40 inches deep in Minnesota; 4 to 6 inches in the southern plains, Douglas said. That means a minimum of three of four weeks before the ground is completely defrosted in the panhandle of Texas and Kansas.

"Every one of these storms helps," agreed Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring branch of the National Climatic Data Center. "But we need more of them to get out [of the drought]."

It can take 6 to 20 inches of snow to equal one inch of water. So while wet snow caused Kansas City, Mo., mayor Sly James to declare a state of emergency, and schools in Texas closed for two days, it's not a complete panacea for the drought.

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"It doesn't solve the drought, but it doesn't hurt it," Arndt said.

"It gives us a slightly better posture going into spring."

It will take a minimum of several months to get out of the drought conditions, Douglas said. Some areas of the Midwest are down by 10 inches of precipitation, Douglas said, but even making up half that amount would be beneficial.

The current conditions are similar to the size of of the droughts in the 1950s, Arndt said. But that mid-century drought lasted 3-5 years.

Better monitoring equipment has also helped manage the conditions better than people were able to the 1950s or the Dust Bowl era of the '30s, Arndt said.

"Keeping on top of it can really help inform a lot of management decisions" such as how to handle reservoirs, Arndt said.
And single events, such as Tuesday's storm, can have short-term benefits, Andt pointed out, like knocking down a wildfire.

Don't put away the shovels yet, Douglas said: It will likely be a late spring for the northern half of the United States. And, hopefully, a wet one.

"It's too early to celebrate OR panic," Douglas said.

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