Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Snow Drought: A Major Concern

In the previous post Andrew Friedman of Climate Central mentioned the warm winter and snow drought that is occurring in the U.S.  Information from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reveals just how warm it has been for the winter months of December and January.

This winter has been influenced by La Nina and the Arctic Oscillation which have combined to produce the warmer than normal temperatures.  The precipitation picture has been mixed with wet conditions from parts of Texas northeastward to New York.  This has eased the extreme drought in some areas of Texas, but has not ended it for much of the state.  Meanwhile, southern Georgia is the center of an expanding drought in the Southeast.  Much of the West is experiencing drought particularly in the Southwest.

Storm systems moving across the country have produced precipitation more in the form of rain than snow.  However, the lack of snow this year has been telling for ski operators, water management people, and farmers.

The following pictures show the snowpack across the U.S. as of January 31 for the past three years.

Snow Depth for January 31, 2010.  Image Credit: NOAA/NOHRSC.

Snow Depth for January 31, 2011.  Image Credit: NOAA/NOHRSC.

Snow Depth for January 31, 2012.  Image Credit: NOAA/NOHRSC.

The lack of rain across the southern U.S. and lack of snow in the Upper Midwest has created a shortage of soil moisture.  In particular are areas where winter wheat and spring wheat are grown.  The only area that is substantially wet is the corridor from Arkansas to New York.  This too could be a problem for corn and soybean farmers if the fields remain too wet.

The soil moisture anomaly as of February 7, 2012.  Image Credit: NOAA/CPC.

One positive note is that the spring melt is unlikely to result in the massive river flooding of the past two springs.

Most worrisome is the lack of snowpack in the western U.S.  This provides much of the water for the populations and agriculture of that region.  A small snowpack means the water supplies will be tight and reservoirs will be low.  Water rationing is likely for the Great Basin and California.

The situation in California is critical.  A survey of the snowpack as of early February found that the snowpack was about 37% of normal.  While there is still time to add to the snowpack, time is running out.  The La Nina pattern normally shifts the storm track farther north.  The impact of wet weather this year has been felt in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada.

Snowpack as of February 1, 2012.  Image Credit: NOAA/USDA.

The lack of snow in the Sierras is very worrisome of the agricultural areas of central California and the water supplies for southern California.  Less than half the water will be available for crops in the central valley.  This is where much of the vegetable crop for the U.S. is produced followed by Florida, both of which are in drought.  The combination of reduced acreage planted and higher energy costs means that vegetable prices in the stores this summer will likely be higher.  This may be dented somewhat by imports, but it will still be higher than last summer.

Higher food prices puts a bigger strain on family finances.  What can you do to reduce the impact?  How about a backyard vegetable garden.  This can be done with low costs, organically, and with minimal water use.  A garden does not have to be big to produce a lot of vegetables.  The problem is that there is a generation of people that have never done this.

Fortunately, there is help in the Midlands.  First of all there are classes in gardening at the Riverbanks Botanical Gardens for adults.  Planting season is usually April and there are classes that will teach you how to prepare, grow, and harvest you own vegetables.

Furthermore, there are agricultural extension agents with the Clemson Extension Service in every county of the state.  They can give you information on what and when to plants different vegetables.  There is a wealth of information to use and it is an activity that can involved the entire family.

Not everyone is going to put forth the effort to do this, so grocery stores do not need to worry about selling their products.  However, given that drought is an increasing likelihood for the southern U.S., I truly believe that this is something that everyone should consider this year.  Planting season is around the corner, so it is time to prepare (but not plant).

I will have more to say on this in later posts.