Although much of Minnesota is still in severe to extreme drought, University of Minnesota Extension climatologist Mark Seeley says the outlook shows a different story for late winter all the way into planting season.
"By no means am I saying that the drought is ending, but agreement among various forecasting models indicates a good chance that there will be some alleviation," said Seeley. The outlooks from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other climate organizations foresee the jet stream bringing frequent weather disturbances through spring. This is likely to result in increased precipitation for Minnesota through May.
While the forecasted precipitation will be good news for plants, the storms expected for the remaining weeks of winter are also expected to produce strong winds and freezing rain mixed with snow. More periods of sub-zero temperatures are also likely, but mostly in the northern parts of the state, according to the climate outlook models. Northern areas (notably Koochiching, Itasca and St. Louis counties) have recorded temperatures in the negative 30s and 40s already this winter. More double-digit sub-zero temperatures may persist there into February.
Current low soil temperatures and deeper frost depths (20-30 inches) prevent late winter and early spring precipitation from recharging soil moisture levels. This can also contribute to injury of landscape plants and crops like alfalfa. "More snow would be a welcome stabilizer for soil temperatures, which have dropped to single digits in recent weeks," said Seeley. Extension Master Gardeners have documented the detrimental effects of the cold in many areas of the state that have no snow cover. Extension's forage specialists have noted the same for alfalfa.
Minnesota has fared better than several other states during the drought that has persisted for the past year and a half. Reductions in crop yields here were less than expected. Seeley reiterated that above normal precipitation for the late winter and early spring likely does not mean widespread drought alleviation and a normal crop season ahead for all portions of the state. "While there will likely be more abundant precipitation in the coming months--and flash floods are not out of the question either--climatologists and government agencies are still concerned with low lake and river levels, declining aquifers, and the potential for early growing season irrigation needs to be high. Farmers in some areas may still consider planting crops that require less moisture."