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Douglas: La Niña to transition to El Niño throughout summer

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Phoenix, Ariz. – The 2018 Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show “Blazed a trail to Phoenix” for the event, and Feb. 1’s General Session was opened with a robust discussion from CattleFax. 

CattleFax, which celebrated its 50th anniversary at the convention, looked over the future for the cattle business and also looked at what producers should expect for the weather for the next year. 

“About two-thirds of the country has had pretty bad drought conditions,” said Art Douglas, a Creighton University professor emeritus. “The drought is because of La Niña, which has affected a lot of the world.”


Forecasts from both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) show conflicting information for the future. 

“NOAA says it will stay cold all the way through the summer,” Douglas explained. “In other words, La Niña will forecast.”

“ECMWF, on the other hand, has a steady upward trend in sea surface temperatures,” he said, noting the forecasts from ECMWF tend to be more accurate. “By June, we should have slightly above normal sea surface temperatures. At that point, La Niña is getting ready to die.”

“In the next three months, La Niña will perpetuate the drought in the southwest United States, the Plains and the Southeast,” Douglas commented. “As we go through summer, things are going to start easing up.”

U.S. conditions

Closer to home, in the U.S., drought has developed in Arizona and New Mexico since the winter of 2016-17. 

“We had a very poor winter rainy season and a poor summer, and now we have a very dry fall and winter,” Douglas described. “There’s a slight storm track now with moisture going into British Columbia and then into the Great Plains, but the amount of moisture in the country has been slim for the last 90 days.” 

Dryness has expanded from the Southwest, where Arizona has received less than 10 percent of their normal precipitation in the last six months, to the Plains and even the eastern United States.

“The vegetation index shows a lot of red in southern California and Arizona, with intense drought conditions and stressed vegetation and rangelands,” he said. “That drought goes all the way to central Texas.”

Year over year, drought has intensified. 

Long range forecasts

Sea surface temperatures show warm water in the Atlantic, which favor high pressure, and warm water in Baja California. Coupled with a cold equator, the subtropical jet stream is too weak to produce rain, meaning storms are not likely in the near future. 

Looking at data, analog years to 2018 include 2001 and 2014 as the most recent references. By reconstructing sea surface temperatures through the summer, Douglas said warm conditions in the Southwest and colder temperatures out to the Plains should be expected. 

“As we get into the month of February, if we don’t have snow cover on the ground, the sun starts heating the atmosphere, so we’re going to be cold in the Northern Plains,” he said. “It’s going to be a cool spring.”

A warm, late winter is often indicative of El Niño, added Douglas.


For moisture, Douglas also said drought will continue in the Southwest and Southern Plains. Storm tracks will likely cover Illinois to Ohio in snow.

“The coolness will stay in the Northern Plains, but very dry conditions are likely from the West Coast into the Rockies and throughout the Southern Plains,” Douglas commented. “It’s not a very good-looking forecast.” 

Turning to summer, Douglas noted temperatures and moisture will moderate. 

A warm, dry summer is predicted for the Pacific Northwest into Canada, all the way to Texas. Slightly cooler than normal temperatures are likely in the Mississippi Valley. 

“A major concern for the summer is how dry California, Oregon, Nevada and Idaho, as well as the Southern Plains will be,” Douglas said. “This is going to be a scorcher, and there are going to be a lot of fires in this part of the country.”

Dry conditions and prime fire weather will also hit the Northern and Central Rockies. 

By the end of July and August, Douglas foresees drought will begin to ease, and moisture will hit Arizona, into the Central Rockies and Northern Plains, which is good news for the end of the summer.

“The summer forecast shows what we would expect in a developing El Niño,” he said.

Look for more from the 2018 NCBA Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show in next week’s Roundup. 

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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