Noted meteorologist and weather scientist Paul Douglas wasn’t offering much hope in reassuring farmers concerning the coming growing season. I had an opportunity to speak with Douglas in early April. “There’s no way to relate with any specificity what the upcoming season will be like,” Douglas admitted. “If I could tell you that, I’d be sipping umbrella drinks on my own tropical island!”
Douglas did say the science of weather is good enough to predict trends 90 days out; but beyond that it would mostly be a hand-waving argument. “But I am somewhat concerned the next couple of months. We have moderate drought in west central Minnesota and extreme in Kansas, parts of Oklahoma, the Dakotas.
“However, the trend in recent years is historic rains in the upper Midwest. But the law of averages catches up with you occasionally and you have a dry patch occurring. So my hunch for now is our moderate drought continuing through May with moisture returning to normal levels in June and July. But as we come out of this la Niña cooling pattern in the Pacific, the bias is towards dryer weather.”
Why are we seeing this increasing variability in weather?
“The climate is changing,” said Douglas indicating bigger swings in both temperature and moisture are predictable for upper Midwest weather. Also these weather swings are always greater near the center of continents. “And the fact that we are near the middle of North America and well away from the moderating influence of the oceans adds to our weather variability.
“It’s like having a big hot water bottle right next to your body. It moderates the climate. That’s why there are palm trees growing in Van Cover which sits right next to the Pacific. As you get closer to big water, you don’t get the crazy weather extremes like here in middle America.”
Douglas noted the Climate Extreme Index (CEI), which is the percentage of the U.S. in extreme flood or extreme drought, has increased in the past 40 years. “And the flip-flopping we are doing between flood and drought has a greater frequency than years back. Many are connecting the warming climate with these big extremes. And this uptake in extremes is something we’re noticing worldwide. Every country seems to be experiencing more extremes.”
He indicated droughts are now a little deeper and longer. Floods are more severe. Intense storm damage on our eastern seaboard already this season are indicative of this increasing variability of our North American weather.
Douglas said nationwide we’ve had 25 separate 500-year floods just since 2010. Minnesota has seen four separate 1000-year rains since 2010 — three in southern Minnesota and the big Duluth flood of 2012.
“So obviously, something is going on with world weather,” Douglas said. “It’s a fact of life that water management is going to be a bigger deal going forward. How do we keep soil moisture where we want it? How do we retain moisture during the dry summers? And how do we keep topsoil from being washed away when we have these inevitable floods occurring with greater frequency?”
How long will this increasing trend of warmer and drier weather, intermixed with increasing frequency of more violent storms, continue to happen?
The weather scientist responded, “As long as carbon dioxide and methane levels worldwide continue to rise, our temperatures will continue to rise. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have cold fronts — even bumping below zero. Nor does it mean we won’t have snow storms. God forbid, if Canada runs out of cold fronts, the planet is going to have much bigger problems.
“But the warming will continue as long as CO2 levels continue to rise. There’s been a lot of talk, but not a lot of progress, in eliminating these CO2 emissions. I hear people chattering that if this trend continues, by 2100 our grandchildren will have climate similar to what you have in northern Missouri. Then the question is what happens to the corn belt and the soybean belt? The thought being crop production will be shifting northward. But the reality is, Canadian soils don’t support the production intensity of our southern Minnesota ag belt.”
Douglas concluded he’s still optimistic referring to the current weather cycle as both a threat and an opportunity for reinvention and for smarter agriculture with new solutions. “Doing the same thing as we were doing in the 1970s isn’t the answer.”
Paul Douglas is a common name to Minnesotans everywhere. He has 35 years of television and radio experience; plus daily weather blogs in various newspapers. Like most weather people, he has a sense of humor concerning his profession. As we wrapped up this telephone interview he commented, “Years back I would say people come to Minnesota for our culture. They would stay because their car wouldn’t start. I’ve modernized. Today I say, Minnesota: Land of 10,000 weather atrocities.”