March 16, 2006

Drought may worsen in US Southwest, Plains: NOAA

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Drought that has shriveled crops and
sparked fires in bone-dry forests will persist and could even
worsen across the Southwest and central and southern Plains
through at least June, U.S. government forecasters said

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in
its spring weather forecast that these regions, which have
already seen thousands of acres go up in flames, should brace
for a "significant" wildfire season in 2006 as conditions
become more severe.

"We need to monitor this drought situation very closely,"
said David Johnson, director of NOAA's National Weather Service

The return of La Nina, an unusual cooling of Pacific Ocean
surface temperatures which is the flip side of El Nino, could
make the Atlantic tropical storm season especially dangerous.

Indeed, some forecasters have already warned that the
number of storms may top the record set just last year.

La Nina developed during the winter and has contributed to
the dryness plaguing much of the southern United States.

"It's showing no signs of declining...and the odds that
it's going to last into late summer have gone up," said Ed
O'Lenic, meteorologist with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

He said La Nina tends to enhance weather "favorable to the
development of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic."

Last year was the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on
record, with 27 named storms and 15 hurricanes. NOAA previously
warned that the hurricane season -- which typically peaks
between August 1 and late October -- could be active again in


Severe drought is blanketing the Southwest into the
southern Plains and northward into Kansas. Heavy rains have
eased dryness for now in Illinois, Iowa and extending south to

But weather forecasters said "ongoing drought concerns may

A scarcity of rain since last fall has parched hard red
winter wheat and dried up stock ponds and pastures in the
southern Plains. A storm expected to drop up to 2.5 inches of
rain this weekend in the Great Plains could be too late to save
the winter wheat crop, government forecasters said.

"It kind of remains to be seen how much recovery there will
be in wheat. Some of that wheat is getting to...frankly the
point of no return" said Brad Rippey, a USDA meteorologist.

"But for just about everything else including pre-planting
moisture for summer crops, pasture revival, wildfire control,
the rain is nothing but good," he added.

Improved soil moisture will bode well for U.S. soft red
winter areas while providing much-needed relief for corn and
soybean crops later this spring.

Spring also will bring above normal temperatures for the
Southwest eastward into the Southeast with cooler-than-normal
conditions for the northern Plains and northern Rockies.

Below-normal precipitation is expected for much of the
central and southern Plains, as well as the Southeast and Gulf
Coast. Above normal precipitation is favored across the
northern Plains and Great Lakes region.