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NWS: Valley in moderate drought, but wet spring and summer not out of question

Is it drying time again? That's what people throughout the Red River Valley have been wondering the past couple of months as they ponder the seemingly evaporating prospect of a fourth straight severe flood season. It is dry. An average total of 1...

National Weather Service

Is it drying time again?

That's what people throughout the Red River Valley have been wondering the past couple of months as they ponder the seemingly evaporating prospect of a fourth straight severe flood season.

It is dry. An average total of 1.33 inches of precipitation was recorded between October and December in the Red River Valley, including the Devils Lake Basin and Sheyenne River Valley, according to the National Weather Service.

That's the eighth driest October-December on record. But it really hasn't been that long ago that the valley experienced similar conditions.

"We all have pretty bad weather memories," said Mark Ewens, climate forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. "For example, 2007 and 2008 were really dry in the winters and springs. Then we had these really wet years in a row, and people's memories kind of wiped it out."


The year 2007 actually was much drier in much of north-central and northeast Minnesota. Yet, it did not make the Top 10 list of driest winters overall in the Red River Valley.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor forecasts the Red River Valley is likely to endure moderate drought conditions over the next three months, while the rest of North Dakota and northwest Minnesota should be abnormally dry.

The moderate drought is expected to extend through portions of central and northeastern Minnesota, according to the drought monitor. Meanwhile, severe drought conditions are forecast across most of southern Minnesota, as well as in the Arrowhead region of northeast Minnesota.

Just a dry fall

That doesn't mean we've turned the corner on the recent wet cycle, however.

The weather service's spring flood outlook, released Dec. 24, indicated just a 3 percent chance that Grand Forks-East Grand Forks would experience major flooding in the spring. Major flooding occurs when the Red River reaches a level of 46 feet.

A next spring outlook will be issued Thursday.

While some areas of the southern Red River Valley have received a few inches of snow in recent days, precipitation has been minimal throughout the region this winter.


"The Drought Monitor really reflects the dry fall," Ewens said, adding that dry conditions in the fall and winter are not all that unusual in the Northern Plains and the Red River Valley.

"It quit raining in early September," he said. "There's been no significant precipitation through the harvest season or as fall turned to winter. It really dried the topsoil out tremendously."

The lack of moisture could mean lower yields on winter wheat crops.

"If we don't start seeing rains in the spring and summer, we're really going to have some problems for crops and for the area in general," Ewens said.

Could get wetter

But it's too early to predict what all of this dry weather will mean for the spring and summer.

For example, in the winter of 1989-90, during the height of the most recent short-term drought in the region, 1.23 inches of precipitation was recorded from October through December. That was the sixth driest period on record for those months. The five-month total, between October 1989 and February 1990, was just 1.92 inches.

The spring and fall that followed were moderately wet. From March through May, there were 4.16 inches of precipitation. From June to August, there were 9.17 inches. That was more than 3 inches more than the summer of 1988, which followed the fifth driest winter on record.


Ewens points out that the driest October-December period on record, in 1976, was followed by a March-May period that was somewhat wetter than normal and a summer that was drier.

The next driest fall, in 1999, was followed by a dry spring and one of the wettest summers.

Ewens said too many factors are involved to accurately make long-term forecasts.

This year, for example, an El Niño weather pattern was supposed to bring a colder, wetter, winter to the Red River Valley. But that has been interrupted by a phenomenon called an Arctic oscillation, a high-pressure system in the Arctic that essentially has overpowered the influences of the El Niño and La Niña patterns.

"So, as far as the springs and summers that follow dry or wet falls," Ewens said, "it's a crap shoot."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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