Farmers and ranchers all across New Mexico agree that substantial rainfall since late August has been instrumental in lowering the state's drought status and in some cases has helped to raise river, lake and reservoir levels, and spawning hope for better irrigation allotments once spring planting is complete and the 2014 growing season is underway.
But climatologists and agricultural officials warn that in spite of above average rains in September and so far in October, the entire Southwest remains in either dry or drought conditions.
A preliminary winter forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration in late September called for warmer-than-average temperatures and below-average precipitation this winter. But NOAA admitted their forecast did not include the latest models because of the 16-day government shutdown that ended just last week. Officials hope to update winter predictions by early November.
But a couple of private weather companies recently released winter predictions for Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, and at least one of those calls for heavy snowfalls across the Rockies and deep into the Sangre de Cristos and other southern New Mexican ranges in the weeks ahead and again into the winter months.
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Private weather company Accuweather.com released the latest winter forecast early last week and predicts a wetter and cooler season for parts of New Mexico, in stark contrast to the government's earlier preliminary predictions.
"There is a chance heavy rain and snow and cooler temperatures will prevail in parts of Colorado and New Mexico in October, but we could begin to see a drop in precipitation in November. But with a negative North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) in late December and well into January and perhaps February, there is a chance we could see heavy snows for large parts of the Southwest and in the Mountainous West on and off again throughout the winter season," reported Accuweather Winter Prediction Meteorologist Paul Pastelock.
Third prediction released for Southwest
Meanwhile, FWX Company, who owns the private weather company Storm Central, is lending support to the Accuweather model, citing the Farmers Almanac winter forecast released in August that also calls for colder, wetter winter across much of the country, including parts of the Southwest.
“We’re using a very strong four-letter word to describe this winter, which is C-O-L-D. It’s going to be very cold,” said Sandi Duncan, managing editor of Farmers Almanac. Company officials say their forecasts are based on tidal action, solar spots, lunar cycles, and a secret formula that no one knows and has not been made public.
Regardless which forecast is accurate, New Mexico producers are expressing some optimism at even the possibility of heavier snowfalls this winter season.
"I can honestly say this is the first time in 30 years that anyone has heard me say we have had a break from drought conditions," reported Woods Houghton, County Extension Service agriculture agent in Carlsbad, earlier this month.
He said the southwestern quarter of New Mexico is now classified as abnormally dry, which is not considered an actual drought classification. By comparison, these areas were tagged as in severe to extreme drought over much of the past year.
"Some local hay producers have given a lot of pastures a rest in recent years because of exceptionally dry conditions and a lack of irrigation water, but many of them have already plowed them up in anticipation of spring planting next year," he added.
National Weather Service (NWS) officials in Albuquerque say the Northern New Mexico mountains have already experienced two moderate, early season snowstorms this year, raising hopes for a heavy snowpack later this winter. So far Sipapu Ski Mountain has reported six inches of fresh snow this year and is now hoping to make its targeted mid-November open-season date.
NOAA officials say winter conditions across North America are largely driven by cyclical weather events. The Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean is popularly termed either an El Niño or La Niña system. As water temperatures shift in the eastern tropical Pacific and air pressure rises in the western tropical Pacific, it generally heralds in an El Niño event, which experts say influences the oscillation that can bring better than average precipitation for the Southwest.
On the other hand, cooling water temperatures can produce a La Niña influence, and that generally signals a warmer, drier Southwest over the winter months.
Local NWS officials in Albuquerque are waiting for the latest NOAA weather models to be updated and included into the official winter forecast before they are ready say whether the outlook for precipitation or temperatures has changed since the preliminary prediction was issued last month. In the meantime, most New Mexico producers remain hopeful for heavier snow packs and a wetter spring, a sharp contrast to extreme drought that has plagued the Southwest over the last two years.