Few people complained in March about the record heat that made for perfect golfing weather.
Yet, those high temperatures in early spring weren't enough to send signals that farmers could face one of the worst droughts in more than half a century.
Last spring, farmers were largely optimistic despite dry soil profiles because a few good rains would have taken care of the problem. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
"I didn't have anybody complain about the fact that March was golfing weather," said Jerry Hatfield, a USDA Agricultural Research Service soil scientist. "Producers, the only reason they didn't plant on March 15 was the crop-insurance payment on replanting."
The 2012 drought prompted a lot of introspection at an agricultural science meeting this week in Cincinnati, especially considering short-term climate models didn't provide any major alarms or warnings that might have helped climatologists or agronomists offer farmers better early-warning advice on their crops.
Simply put, "What will it take for us to have a better, reliable forecast?" asked Chuck Rice, a soil scientist at Kansas State University.
Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel took part in a panel looking at how to offer more usable climate information to farmers. But it remains a struggle to provide longer outlooks for late-spring and summer forecasts.
Last February, the major climate models for summer didn't forecast a major drought. The models instead offered a vague "equal chance" of both a dry or wet summer throughout the Midwest. "Equal chance" is a catch-22 often used by the National Weather Service. It's a perennial problem.
"They didn't see this coming at all," Angel said.
At an event specifically looking at the 2012 drought, South Dakota state climatologist Dennis Todey noted the Corn Belt and Plains states generally had warm temperatures throughout last winter leading up to mid-spring. March set record temperatures throughout the month. Yet, the official weather outlook even in late spring did not state that this past summer was going to have exceedingly high temperatures or dry conditions, Todey said.
"We still don't have good handles on forecasts," he said.
With climate change, weather variability is going to exist. Some models forecast even project greater volatility. Todey points out just how the weather has changed in the past 18 months in which the Missouri River valley has gone from flooding and too much moisture to drought conditions and dry soil profiles. The variability makes it difficult to tell people how to plan for next year.
"How do you manage this extreme variability?" Todey said. "That's something we're going to have to struggle with on a lot of scales."
Todey noted that "inter-annual" variability is still not well understood. To produce better forecasts, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would need more money to invest in better modeling. Given the federal funding situation, that's unlikely in the short-term. "Is it coming next year? No."
Recent surveys among both farmers and crop advisers show there are more concerns about longer-lasting droughts even among those people who are skeptical of the role of climate change, Todey noted...
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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