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Published December 12, 2011, 05:32 PM

Cold winter, drought ahead?

A weather expert is predicting the weather probably is going to get cold this winter. Very cold.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

It’s probably going to get cold this winter. Very cold.

“We will set some record cold conditions. In fact, this may go down as one of the coldest winters in the past 30, 40 years,” says Leon Osborne, president and chief executive conditions of Meridian Environmental Technology in Grand Forks. N.D.

At least part of next summer looks nasty, too. Osborne forecasts that “an abnormally dry set of conditions” will develop by late July or early August, although those conditions aren’t expected to extend far into fall.

Osborne stresses that it’s too soon to use “the d-word” (drought). He also says the weather phenomena known as La Nina could change that.

“If we have another round of La Nina conditions (in 2012), then this time next year we may be talking about how we prepare for drought conditions across North Dakota,” he says.

Osborne spoke Dec. 8 at the annual Prairie Grains Conference at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. A record crowd of more than 700 people attended the show, sponsored by seven North Dakota and Minnesota farm organizations.

Osborne puts the probability of an exceptionally cold winter at 90 percent. He describes that as “a very high confidence factor. I won’t sure it’s a sure thing, but it’s getting close.”

Why is a cold winter so likely?

Osborne places some of the blame on a switch in ocean currents that’s melting more north polar ice than usual. That creates an above-average amount of open water, which in turn affects the jet stream, a current of fast-flowing air at high altitudes that plays an important role in weather formation.

Also contributing to the strong likelihood of a cold winter is La Nina, a weather phenomena involving cooling of tropical Pacific water, Osborne says.

La Nina and the out-of-whack polar thermometer were factors in the cold winter of 2010-11 as well, he says.

Even more polar ice has melted this year, he says.

As for La Nina, “It went away and now it’s back again. It came back late this last summer and it continues to strengthen,” Osborne says.

“We expect it to continue to build as we move into the January/February time period,” he says. “Then it will begin to wane and it will be gone by late May.”

Wet cycle, white Christmas

Most of the area has been in a wet cycle since 1993, and flooding and too-wet-to-plant fields have become familiar occurrences.

But the warm, dry fall has put much of North Dakota into low-stage drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor Index, an Omaha, Neb.-based based partnership of federal and academic scientists.

“We’re moving down the path of drier conditions, Osborne says.

If La Nina comes back for a third straight year in 2012, “Then we have a significant risk ahead of us, he says.

Among Osborne’s other forecasts:

n The winter will be relatively dry. Though some snow will fall, it will have low-water content.

n Precipitation will return to normal or near normal by June.

n Soil temperatures will rise slowly this spring.

n There’s a higher-than-average chance of an extended cold period through May and into the first part of June.

n The odds of a late freeze this spring will be higher than usual.

Area residents hoping for a white Christmas will be cheered by another of Osborne’s forecasts. He says one of his company’s weather models suggests that “you might get a Christmas gift on about the 22nd or 23 of December of a nice 3 or 4 inches of snow. And then it’s going to stop.”

Drought elsewhere

La Nina already has contributed to serious drought in Texas, Osborne says

The Texas state climatologist has predicted that drought there likely will persist for another six to nine years, Osborne says

The drought also is expected to expand north, at least into parts of Nebraska and possibly beyond, which will impact commodity markets, Osborne says.

Texas and surrounding states suffered badly from drought in the 1950s, particularly 1954 to 1956, That drought worked its way northward on the Great Plains, but ultimately had little impact on North Dakota, he says.