WASHINGTON -- The drought that has plagued Iowa and much of the United States shows no sign of abating this winter, throwing into flux the moisture conditions when the spring planting season begins next year, U.S. government weather forecasters said on Thursday.
Drought conditions throughout the state have persisted since the summer when scant rainfall and searing temperatures left corn, soybean and other crops withering in bone-dry fields. Currently, 59 percent of the lower 48 states are being impacted by drought.
While drought conditions have improved throughout the state, 69 percent of Iowa remains mired in severe to exceptional drought compared to 100 percent three months ago. During the winter months, conditions are expected to improve in the eastern part of Iowa and persist or intensify in the western two-thirds of the state where conditions already are the worst.
"We're expecting persistence of that drought through the winter months and through early spring and with the climate signals being relatively weak . . . it's very difficult to really say how the spring will materialize with regard to the drought outlook," said Jon Gottschalck, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.
NOAA also backtracked from an earlier prediction that El Nino weather conditions would play a major role this winter. The weather anomaly, characterized by a warming of the equatorial Pacific waters, usually brings warmer temperatures and average precipitation to the state.
"It's definitely extremely difficult. This particular winter forecast is one of the most challenging" in recent years, said Gottschalck.
A problem keeping forecasters uncertain about this winter is a lack of agreement among the weather models they use, and the emergence of a weak or non-existent El Nino provides even less certainty. The three-month outlook through the end of February forecasts equal chances of above-average, average or below-average rainfall across the state. The weather agency offered a similar forecast for temperatures.
U.S. farmers plant the lion's share of their corn between mid-April and mid-May followed by soybeans in mid-May through early June. After suffering through a challenging summer, farmers are fearful they might have to do it all over again next spring unless things improve during the winter.
"We are still very short, subsoil moisture or reserve moisture that our crop will be able to tap into unless we get normal or above normal snowfall during the winter," said Justin Dammann, a southwestern Iowa corn and cattle farmer. "I'm concerned also as far as next year because we seem to be in a pattern of weather extremes and they are hard to manage from a crop production standpoint."
In its outlook, NOAA said colder-than-normal conditions would be felt this winter in Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota with warmer-than-normal temperatures in Idaho extending southeast to Louisiana. Meanwhile, most of the United States has equal chances of above, average or below normal precipitation. The exception was the Tennessee Valley, with above normal precipitation predicted, and California where conditions are forecast to be below normal.
By CHRISTOPHER DOERING, Gannett Washington Bureau