U.S. Water News Online
KEARNEY, Neb. -- The tan patch covering most of the central
Great Plains on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's
January through March precipitation outlook map is an eyesore to
people hoping for a break from the multiyear drought.
The map label predicts precipitation in most of Nebraska early in
2004 will be at least 33 percent less than the 1971-2000 average. A
darker brown patch indicates some of southeast Nebraska probably will
have 40 percent less precipitation than normal.
How accurate are such forecasts?
``Obviously, the farther you go into the future, the less reliable
the prediction,'' said Stan Dart, associate professor of sociology,
geography and Earth sciences at the University of Nebraska at
Kearney. ``You can't predict (weather) with any accuracy far into the
However, he said the 90-day forecasts are based on enough reliable
information to generally be more than 50 percent accurate. Dart knows
that it's NOAA's precipitation outlook that ``makes everyone want to
jump up and down.''
Predictions by another venerable forecaster, the Old Farmer's
Almanac, are more positive. However, that publication already missed
on its prediction that the central Great Plains would see a snowy
period around Thanksgiving.
It's yet to be seen if the forecast for above-normal winter
snowfall and a nother snowy period from late January until early
February beats NOAA's forecast for dry weather.
``It's very nice to be surprised,'' Dart said about that dry
Dart said farmers shouldn't make any 2004 ag decisions based on
current 90-day predictions. They should check NOAA maps again in
February and March for some planting season forecasts.
The words ``weather'' and ``uncertainty'' always have gone
together. ``You never know you're in a drought until you're in a
drought. You never know you're out of a drought until you're out of
it,'' Dart said.
Also complicating the weather picture are wet periods in dry
years. Dart said that May was wet in an otherwise dry 2003. On the
other hand, 1993 is remembered as a wet year even though there were
stretches of four to six weeks when parts of Nebraska had no
Dart listed four types of drought: meteorological, a shortage of
precipitation; hydrological, which affects stream flows;
agricultural, when soil moisture is depleted; and socio-economic.
Nebraska is experiencing all four.
Four or five dry years aren't unusual in climatology time, he
said, but they are wearing down the drought-resisting tools developed
in the past 70 years.
The Great Plains were depopulated in the Dust Bowl years of the
1930s. Dart said fewer people left in the 1950s as land use, tillage
and conservation methods changed. The dry years of the 1970s were
mitigated by irrigation and more conservation.
Now, shrinking Nebraska reservoirs are harming surface water
irrigation supplies and groundwater recharge. Dart said it's just too
early to tell if 2004 will bring an end to drought or a dangerous
continuation of it.
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