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New Mexico snowpack disappears in the wind

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The worst-case drought scenario – dry March winds – is eating into New Mexico’s already meager snowpack, state and federal officials were told at a Friday meeting of the state’s Drought Monitoring Working Group.

The fields of winter snow that provide the state’s river runoff “are just blowing away,” said Raymond Abeyta of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But the drought team also heard the first good news in a while – the growing chance of an El Niño, a shift in the weather patterns that could finally bring a wetter winter of 2014-15. The odds of an El Niño have risen in recent weeks to 60 percent, according to Chuck Jones of the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

Officials expressed caution about the forecast, noting that prominent signs of an El Niño in 2012 fizzled. But it is nevertheless the best climate news for drought-plagued New Mexico in some time. “At this point I’m very cautious,” said Shawn Bennett, head of the Weather Service’s Albuquerque office. “At least it’s leaning in that direction.”

The immediate problem – a meager snowpack being eaten away by winds – is worsened by a forecast for a warm spring, according to Jones. That means whatever snowmelt New Mexico gets will have to run a gantlet of evaporation as it makes its way downstream and into the state’s water supply reservoirs and irrigation systems, Jones said.

El Niño is a climate pattern in which a warmer Pacific along the equator influences storm tracks around the world, including tipping the odds toward more winter storms in New Mexico. The last El Niño happened during the winter of 2009-10, and it brought the last wetter-than-average winter snowpack to New Mexico.

During Friday’s drought meeting, Jones cautioned that forecasting an El Niño this early in the year is notoriously difficult. “That’s looking more encouraging,” Jones said, pointing to a graph showing forecast models, “but I would not get too excited until a couple of months from now.”

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