With Southwest weather outlooks, even good news comes with caveats, maybes and big ifs.
“We usually come bearing bad news,” admits Amy McCullough, science and operations officer, National Weather Service, San Angelo.
McCullough, addressing the Big County Wheat Conference Thursday in Abilene, Texas, offered a glimmer of hope for a moisture-starved region. “Today, I have a slightly different outlook,” she told the nearly 200 participants in the event sponsored every other year by the Taylor County AgriLife Extension Service. “Maybe we have some good news.”
That good news centers on the likelihood of an El Niño developing in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of South America. But even that possibility comes with a few ifs and buts.
For instance, just several weeks back forecasters were looking at what they thought would be a “robust” El Niño developing for fall.
“From June 8 through July 15 we were watching the waters in the Pacific warm up off the coast of South America,” McCullough said. Forecasters, at that time, “had a strong hope for an El Niño” and the increased possibility for milder temperatures and more rainfall for the Southwest.
A recent weakening of the warming trend reduced the possibility somewhat.
“But last week we began to see El Niño trying to rebuild,” McCullough said. She said probability of an El Niño forming is now set at about 66 percent. “So we’re still hopeful.”
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Forecasters expect no real change until late fall or early winter, however. “From November through January, we see positive indications for El Niño, but we don’t anticipate any real effect this fall. It’s mostly a winter effect in the San Angelo area.”
If the phenomenon does materialize, the Texas Rolling Plains could see “above normal” precipitation this winter. “But normal winter precipitation is low,” McCullough said, so the change may not be significant.
The trend could continue, however, into spring with predictions calling for more moisture. “From April through June, the potential for moisture would lessen,” she added.
Also, “drought is likely to continue into this fall.”
The Southwest may have “a slightly better chance of rainfall” from El Niño. “We have a better chance of rain across Texas into winter and early spring. Winter is likely to be colder, too,” McCullough said.
Much of the Southwest has benefitted from increased moisture this summer. May rainfall broke a cycle of increasingly high temperatures.
“Early in the year, we had very low lows and very high highs,” McCullough said. “That changed in May. We got rain, more than we had seen in quite some time. Temperatures were a little milder after that.”
She said August has returned to more typically hot temperatures.
McCullough said spotty rainfall in some areas of Texas and the Southwest during late spring and into the summer has improved the overall drought status. “Some areas have improved but we still have places in Texas, especially in Northwest Texas, with severe drought.”
McCullough said the national Weather Service focuses on “outlooks,” rather than “forecasts. Forecasting is difficult,” she said, “especially for more than seven days out, and trying to predict a storm system that doesn’t even exist yet. Forecasting is a very complex process, so we use many computer models to get the best information available. And we check against those models to verify forecasts.”
Even with the latest technology, the most comprehensive computer models and historic trends, McCullough says the human element remains an important part of predicting the weather. “A ‘gut feeling’ is involved,” she said.
Her final comment was a hopeful one but still wrapped in uncertainty. “If El Niño develops, we should see above average rainfall.”