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Will La Niña Take on Winter Forecasts This Year?

There’s a 55% chance that La Niña will stir up winter forecasts in the Midwest and Corn Belt this year, according to Illinois climatologist Dr. Jim Angel. 

For the upper part of the Midwest – meaning North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – this means colder-than-normal air coming from Canada. 

“It’s not a slam dunk that we’re going to have a La Niña,” says Angel. “It’s actually a little bit of a question mark.”

For everywhere else, warmer temperatures and increased precipitation should be expected if the La Niña makes an appearance. Typically, active weather patterns are the norm, which means more snowfall but not necessarily bitter cold temperatures.

What Does This Mean For Growers?

Warmer winter temperatures decrease the likelihood of thoroughly freezing the soil, which has a few consequences:

  1. Unlikely winter kill
    “Pests and invasive species are more likely to survive in milder winters,” Angel says. “So this isn’t good news if you’re trying to freeze off over-wintering pests.”
  2. Less loose soil
    “We get a lot of freezing and thawing, which helps loosen up soils to break down compaction, which is another benefit we might lose out on,” says Angel.
  3. Fertilizer movement
    “The odds of fall-applied fertilizer staying in place are much lower with warmer winters,” Angel says. “Especially with warmer, wet winters, which is the worst combination.”

Conditions Coming Soon

As November continues, Angel is confident that temperatures will remain warmer than normal.

According to Kenny Miller of MDA Weather Services, freeze threats should be low for wheat because temperatures will stay warmer than average in the central Plains and Midwest. December will likely be wetter across the central and southern Plains, western Midwest, and the southeast.

“The wetter pattern across the central Plains would help improve moisture there for hard red wheat,” says Miller. 

The southeastern part of the U.S. is experiencing a fairly severe drought, though, which is important to note. Angel says that drought is knocking on his state of Illinois’ door as some southern Illinois counties are starting to struggle with dryness. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that starts to bleed into the southern part of the Corn Belt,” says Angel of the drought-like conditions. He predicts that Kentucky and southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri may be affected short-term.

The Elephant In the Forecast

Even though Angel hesitates before using the words, he can’t deny that global warming has significantly increased the likelihood that winter temperatures will continue trending toward the warmer side. 

“That doesn’t mean that every winter is going to be warm, but it increases the odds of that happening,” Angel says. “That’s the underlying trend, but there are other factors in play, too.”

This comes on the heels of yesterday’s release of a global climate report by the World Meteorological Organization. The warmest five-year period on global records occurred from 2011 to 2015, which the organization attributes heavily to the rise of greenhouse gases.

Angel says that the chances of the Midwest experiencing another winter like 2014 is less likely to happen. “It’s hard to get those really cold winters anymore,” he says. 

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