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Drought kicks off new year of wild weather

Drought kicks off new year of wild weather

IA Drought map

There was more than enough subsoil moisture in the state of Iowa a year ago. Today, that situation has flipped. Abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions covered most of western Iowa as of Dec. 24.

There’s an old line about Iowa weather that’s something to the effect of “if you don’t like the weather, just wait” because it will change.

The situation this year changed quite a bit from the one Iowa farmers faced in 2019.

In 2018, Iowa farmers endured the second wettest year on record. That was followed by the 12th wettest year on record in 2019, making that two-year stretch the wettest two-year period in state history.

So there was more than enough subsoil moisture in the state a year ago. Today, that situation has flipped. Instead of talking about spring flooding as forecasters were a year ago, the discussion is about drought.

“Things can change,” says Iowa State Climatologist Justin Glisan.

This time around the western part of Iowa is dry, thanks to a year that saw some areas receive only about half the normal rainfall amounts and large swaths of the western half of the state get about 6 inches less than normal. The situation is not as dire in eastern Iowa, where some locations actually got more precipitation than normal in 2020.

Temperatures in 2020 were close to normal on average but included some wild gyrations.

Most farmers remember that October was the sixth coldest on record with snow falling in many areas. That turned into a November that was the 10th warmest on record.

But most forgot the wild end to January 2020. Until the last three days of the month, January was about three degrees warmer than normal. But a frigid winter storm front during the last three days of the month dropped that January average to below normal.

To top it off, that arctic freeze was followed by 50-degree temperatures in many areas a few days later.

And none of that discussion even includes talk of the Aug. 10 derecho that caused massive damage in a large section of central and east central Iowa.

Glisan says it all serves as a reminder that any weather prediction for 2021 is little more than an educated guess and a look at the gambling odds.

Still, the year starts with drought.

“Our biggest concern is the lasting drought in the western part of the state,” says Ray Wolf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Wolf and Glisan both say that right now the Midwest is in a La Niña pattern. That pattern can give a pretty good indication of the weather outlook for some parts of the country. For example, it generally means colder than normal temperatures in the Dakotas and warmer temperatures in the Southeast. The problem is that Iowa tends to be near the line between those two patterns, meaning La Niña doesn’t always give a clear indication of what the year will look like here.

“There are a world of possibilities,” Wolf says. “It varies.”

In the short-term, Glisan says the forecast is generally for warm and dry conditions into January. Although it can sometimes seem like a lot, Iowa’s winter snowfall generally adds very little to the moisture profile of the soil. December through February are some of the drier months of the year, and because the ground is usually frozen, very little of that moisture tends to soak in, instead running off in the spring.

Right now the area south of Interstate 80 in Iowa may see warmer than normal temperatures in the April-June time frame and perhaps wetter as well, but that is far from guaranteed, Glisan said.

The bottom line is that there is no strong indicator of what type of year the state faces from Mother Nature but it is clear that, unlike the past two years, a significant part of the state enters the year needing moisture.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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