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Gloomy Winter NM Drought Forecast

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — updated with comments from this morning’s briefing from federal forecasters:

With El Niño nearly El No Show, federal climate scientists issued a batch of forecasts this morning (Thurs. 10/18/12) that offer little hope for drought relief in New Mexico and across much of the nation’s parch midsection. Lots to the forecast, but let’s cut to the chase:

Drought Outlook, Oct. 18, 2012

Drought Outlook, Oct. 18, 2012

The problem is that El Niño, the Pacific Ocean pattern that tips the odds toward wetter weather across the southern tier of states by steering the North American storm track in our direction, is weak to non-existent right now. Mike Halpert of the Climate Prediction Center, on a conference call for reporters this morning, called it “an indecisive El Niño”. After early signs that it would strengthen, it’s sputtering, something Halpert said he and his colleagues have not seen before in the 60 or so years of record watching the phenomenon (“ENSO” is the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the technical term for the climate seesaw going back and forth between wet seasons here and dry):

Equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures remained borderline between ENSO-neutral and weak El Niño conditions during September, with little indication of a strengthening El Niño event.

The result is that, where forecasters a month ago saw at least a ghost of a chance for odds favoring wetter weather, at least in southern New Mexico, they’ve now blanked out their maps. This doesn’t mean they’re forecasting a dry winter here:

Dec-Feb precipitation forecast

Dec-Feb precipitation forecast

Instead, what that big “EC” over New Mexico means is “equal chances” of dry, middling or wet. In this morning’s briefing, the forecasters were careful to explain that they’re not making predictions here, but rather forecasting odds – “probabilistic” in the jargon: “These impacts are not guaranteed,” Halpert said. But the forecasts do provide useful information that we can combine here in New Mexico with what we know with certainty about the conditions on the ground to begin to get a clearer picture of the drought risk we face.


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Our problem is that we’re so dry going into the winter season as a result of two previous wet years that it would take a gangbuster of a wet year to dig us out of our current drought hole – to moisten up dry soil, replenish parched aquifers, green up dry plants and refill drained reservoirs. That explains the big brown patch in the map at the top – not that we’re expecting dry weather, but rather that there’s nothing in the climate pattern at this point that would tip the odds toward weather wet enough to bail us out.

Here’s the last ugly map released this morning, the weekly Drought Monitor for New Mexico. It shows drought conditions expanding westward across the state at a time of year when we ought to be seeing the first rains and snows of fall:

Drought Monitor