Bernard says enjoy it while it lasts, because it could change quickly
BROWN GROUND — Above, a dried-up pond just north of New Richland illustrates just how dry and unseasonably warm it’s been in the area lately. The pond usually is filled with a couple feet of water, normally frozen in January. Below, a small group of ice fishermen kept close to shore on Beaver Lake Sunday. (Star Eagle photos by Jim Lutgens)
By RACHEL RIETSEMA
Old man winter has been acting a tad peculiar this past December and January. Of course, there’s seemingly little room for complaint, but it would still be satisfying to hear a solid explanation.
So, here to shed some wisdom on our unseasonable brown surroundings is local agronomist, Mark Bernard.
“I seem to remember that the winters of 2006-07 and 01-02 were rather warm as well,” Bernard said. “But, why is there no snow on the ground? Well, there is no one reason. There are many factors to consider when this happens.”
According to Bernard, the matter at which these “open winters” occur is never predictable, due to frequency and magnitude of occurrence.
“The La Niña event in the Pacific, a cooling of the surface sea temperatures, is usually associated with above normal winter precipitation and colder than normal temperatures for us,” Bernard said. “That is why most forecasters were convinced we were in for a wetter and colder than normal winter. The same conditions existed last year, so it seemed like a slam dunk.”
Now, seeing as us Minnesotans are clearly in the thick of winter, weather experts have concluded that this year’s La Niña event is much weaker compared to last winter. But, this isn’t the only factor to consider when decoding the mild temperatures.
“Other factors include the ongoing drought in the South and Southwest, drying out the systems and making it tougher for moisture to get this far north,” Bernard said. “Along with that, the jet stream has kept most of the precipitation to the south and east of us along with a blocking high that seems to be perched over Northeastern Canada and Greenland.”
When all these dynamics exist simultaneously, Alaska’s Arctic air fails to reach our immediate area, thus making it impossible to pair up with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Interestingly enough though, when I measured the precipitation for December, I wound up with 1.19” of liquid, which if it had all fallen as snow, it would have equated to roughly 17” inches of snow,” Bernard said. “As it was, I measured 7.5” of snow. Albeit not the wettest December, but far from the driest.
And, it was the wettest month since July at the ranch.”
Bernard added, “No snow reflection does tend to make it somewhat warmer or at least faster to warm due to the dark color of the soil. Tillage has some impact on this as well at least on a localized if not on a more widespread basis.”
In any case, he advises everyone to hold off on putting the snow blowers away just yet. Winter weather has a way of changing suddenly and dramatically.
“It’s entirely possible for this dry pattern to change suddenly and without warning,” Bernard said. “The tendency in rainfall events, especially over the past 30 years, is for them to be more extreme and of greater intensity than what we were used to in the previous 30 years.”
In that same timeframe, rainfall amounts, particularly in March, have been on the climb, which is why it wouldn’t surprise Bernard in the least bit to see it turn “wet and ugly by mid-April.” But who knows, it could remain dry with the corn planters rolling early.
“Some things that would tend to make me think we’ll have an earlier than normal start to the spring would include the dry soils going into winter, lack of snow cover, increasingly better soil drainage systems than even a decade or so ago and no great amount of precipitation thus far,” Bernard said. “Things that would make me believe it could be later include the fact that weather tends to average out over time, becoming part of the data set otherwise known as climate.”
So far it remains to be seen how much the warmer temperatures and lack of snow will impact the crops themselves. However, Bernard can say with confidence that the alfalfa and winter wheat growers are seeing the glass half-full right now.
“On the flip side, warmer temperatures tend to allow larger numbers of some problem insects such as western corn rootworm and bean leaf beetle to survive that wouldn’t normally otherwise,” Bernard said. “Lack of snow cover also makes the aforementioned crops more vulnerable if they break dormancy early and the weather suddenly gets cold again.”
With much of winter already “burned up,” Bernard also notes that Waseca County’s moisture levels have recently measured in the “neighborhood” of 5 inches within the top five feet. Normally, a figure of 9.6 inches of stored moisture is expected for this time of year.
“The trouble is, much of that is in the lower part of the profile,” Bernard said. “Are these numbers bad or concerning? They are if you like worrying about things over which you have no control. This can change rapidly.”
Bernard further explained, “Snowfall is generally overrated when it comes to supplying crops with moisture. Usually, when it melts the soils are still frozen and it runs off or collects in low areas of the field. Some snow cover would be nice for protecting the landscape, but it’s not in the “must have” category.”
Another element not so necessary to future crop success is frost depth. And seeing as at last check it was five inches, he isn’t in the least bit concerned.
”Some folks get hung up on frost breaking up soil compaction but there again, the frost actually does little for that,” Bernard said. “The deep cracks from the drought impact that more.”
Crop projections aside, he assures everyone that even though this winter is much milder than some, it is in fact quite normal. He can remember December and January temperatures reaching the 40s during his youth and adult years.
“They are nothing new,” Bernard said. “Overall wintertime highs have increased slightly in the last 30 years, but probably the most intriguing thing is that the wintertime lows particularly for the months of December and January are dramatically higher than they were in the previous 30-year data set.”
The realities of these gradually increasing open winters do come with some obvious positives, outside of the acreage plots.
“Not moving snow every day like last winter doesn’t break my heart, nor does not having to do chores in the bitterly cold weather,” Bernard said. “The heating bills have been moderate as well.”
So while the New Year may be kind of gray and brown and ugly to look at, there is a silver lining.
“As Mark Twain once said, ‘Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get,’” Bernard said.