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Is El Niño returning?

Jeff Caldwell 02/04/2013 @ 12:57pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The last couple of weeks have seen a major recovery in soil moisture conditions in a part of the Corn Belt that suffered some of the most severe of the region's drought stress last summer.

It's been warmer and wetter than normal for much of the early stretch of 2013 in Indiana, and that's got the state's weather officials cautiously optimistic.

"We can't overemphasize the significance of this recharge in creating the much-needed reserves of soil moisture that can help alleviate the impacts of dry conditions if we start getting that around planting time," says Dev Niyogi, Indiana state climatologist, in a report from Purdue University. "While the general outlook is for normal rains in coming months, our recent experience guides us to think the threat of drought again is just around the corner and not off the mind or landscape. These rains and snow events are critical."

Rains in excess of 6 inches fell in mid-January, with virtually the entire state except for the far-northwest corner receiving some moisture. Some rain fell rapidly enough, though, that it ran off and even caused some streams to reach flood stage.

While the drought's conclusion is far from crystal clear, Indiana officials say the remaining parts of the state (the northwest corner) officially under drought conditions will likely reach more normal conditions with another 3 inches of rain.

Weather-watchers in the Hoosier state also point to a neutral Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) as reason to be optimistic that the 2013 crop season could start off on a less-stressed foot this spring.

"A current Pacific Ocean neutral weather pattern -- that is, neither El Niño nor La Niña -- is expected to persist through spring," according to a university report. "A year ago at this time, Indiana was in a La Niña pattern, which favors summer drought in the region."

Though his outlook's similar in its cautious tone, Iowa State University Extension ag meteorologist Elwynn Taylor says while it's too early to tell whether this recent trend toward a neutral to El Niño-tilted SOI at least bodes well to this point for a better corn crop than last year.

"The SOI is moving more to the El Niño side of neutral...not a great signal, but it does favor possible drought relief for the Midwest," Taylor says. "2013 U.S. corn yields will likely be above 2012, but subtrend."

In the nearer term, though light rain's still in the forecast for the central and southern Midwest over the next few days, it doesn't mean the drought's anywhere near its end just yet, adds MDA EarthSat Weather, Inc., senior ag meteorologist Don Keeney.

"Light rains in Central and Southern areas will result in some additional slight improvements in moisture. However, continued drier weather in far Western areas will maintain low moisture supplies," he says. "We are certainly seeing an upturn in moisture in the southern and eastern Midwest and Delta, and I think this type of pattern will continue there. However, most of the long term projections we have been looking at still hold onto drier conditions in the northwestern Midwest and north central Plains. I do think there will be some improvement in the southern Plains, though."

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