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FOR EXPERT COMMENT: Winter will be Mild, but Drought’s Effects will Persist, say MU Atmospheric Sciences and Soil Experts

Oct. 17, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Christian Basi,, 573-882-4430

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — While some rain has hit the parched earth, the central United States is still suffering from the severe drought this past summer. Now, a University of Missouri atmospheric sciences expert from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources is predicting a mild and slightly warmer than normal winter this year, and an MU soil scientist says that the drought’s effects will linger for months to come.

“Currently, we’re experiencing a very weak El Niño in the central Pacific, which typically indicates a warmer and less intense winter,” said Anthony Lupo, professor and chair of the Department of Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences. “I think we’ll get a nice snow in November, but because the El Niño is so weak, our precipitation will either be at, or slightly below, average.”

Normal rainfall is about 6 inches from December through February with 20 inches of snow. Lupo is predicting that the Midwest will experience between 4.75 and 6 inches of rainfall and about 15 inches of snow this winter. Lupo said there is the potential for very cold, dry weather, but that would depend on a trough sitting over the central United States, and at this time, he is not predicting that will happen.

El Niño and La Niña refer to periodic warming and cooling, respectively, of the surface of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. Both trends can lead to extreme weather, such as floods and droughts, in many regions around the world. El Niño typically results in a dry period in the Midwest, while La Niña typically causes a wet period.

Unfortunately, if Lupo’s precipitation prediction is correct, it will not be enough to reach deep into the soil, according to Randy Miles, an associate professor of soil science at MU.

“If the soil five feet under the surface remains dry, we won’t have moisture for plants late in the growing season next year,” Miles said. “It takes a long time to recharge this sub-soil, especially after the drought we experienced. While the rains we have had have been very helpful, the water has not moved down to that level. Right now, we are very vulnerable to losing the moisture through evaporation. With warm, sunny and windy days, it’s very easy for the moisture to evaporate.”

In the last 12 months, the central U.S. has received 29.38 inches of precipitation. Over the last 30 years, rainfall has averaged about 40 inches per year. Miles said that a good snow pack and significant humidity would help keep the moisture in the soil and help it absorb into the ground.

“We had a similar issue this past year. The crops came up and looked good, but they had nothing to tap into when it got dry later,” Miles said. “Nutrient balance in the soil also can change with a lack of moisture, because moisture can help with decomposition of biological materials, which provides nutrients in the soil. Water also is an important transporter of nutrients to plant roots.”

Miles said that homeowners should watch their foundation walls this spring. When spring rains come, the soil could produce intense pressure against the walls, leading to cracking in the foundation.

Miles serves as director of Sanborn Field and the Missouri Wastewater Small Flow Research and Training Center. He holds a master’s degree in agronomy from Purdue University and a doctoral degree in soil science from Texas A&M University. Miles serves on the board of directors of the National On-Site Wastewater Recycling Association and has published more than 20 refereed journal articles. He has received a special commendation from the Missouri Milk, Food and Environmental Health Association for his work developing on-site wastewater treatment and disposal standards, as well as several campus awards for excellence in teaching.

Lupo received his doctorate from Purdue in 1995 and has written 34 papers on factors that influence large-scale weather patterns. Lupo also is a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in London. Last spring, Lupo correctly predicted the summer drought that afflicted the Midwest.

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