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Not a good weather start

Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, greeted participants to a regional listening session on the science of climate assessment Monday with a slide. It showed a rain gauge used by volunteer weather reporters.

"Around here, we made a rebate program. We're exchanging rain gauges for this," he said, pointing to an image of an upturned bottle cap.

Humor is still abundant in Nebraska, if not moisture. A bottle cap may be all that's needed to measure moisture, as much of the state and big swaths of its Great Plains neighbors are in "exceptional drought," the worst category on the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor maps that the Drought Mitigation Center posts online. Nebraska has replaced Missouri and parts of the eastern Corn Belt, as the epicenter of severe dry weather now in its second year in northern states, with parts of the southern Plains suffering even longer.

And, like last year, winter temperatures are mild in much of the nation's agricultural heartland.

"All in all, if you look at the temperature departures over the past two winters, [they are] pretty eerily similar patterns," Svoboda told the National Climate Assessment Great Plains Regional Town Hall Meeting held at the University of Nebraska.

The meeting allowed scientists and others in the region to hear how the federal government is coordinating a nationwide look at how a changing climate is affecting different regions and sectors of the economy, including agriculture.

Svoboda often points out that drought is a normal part of long term climate. You can have a drought in a desert, even though most people living in Phoenix might not notice if rainfall drops from the usual annual average of eight to two. It will be years before we know if the drought of 2012 was a sign of the long-term changes projected in the National Climate Assessment.

Back in the Corn Belt, the drought is being noticed and Svoboda brought the meeting up to date.

Currently, about 67% of the north central states are in drought, Svoboda said. "A year ago we were at 18%."

The region hasn't seen the recharge of soil moisture that it needed last fall, "which means we're putting our hopes on not just a normal spring, but a well above normal spring," Svoboda said.

Svoboda doesn't see much help for spring outlook from the measures of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures along the equator that we call El Nino (warmer than normal) and La Nina (colder than normal).  La Nina is associated with warmer and drier summers and is considered one cause of last summer's drought. Currently, there is neither an El Nino nor a La Nina. That neutral territory makes long term estimates more difficult.

Svoboda showed a slide of the Palmer Drought Index going back to 1895. Dry years during the 1950s and 1930s were the only other times when 65% of the country was in moderate to extreme drought.

"We're putting a lot of leverage on what this spring is going to do," Svoboda said Monday, "and that's going to be important for soil recharge."

Even without adequate soil recharge, the current situation isn't exactly a guarantee of widespread crop failure in 2013.

"It's not all doom and gloom," Svoboda said. "We have topsoil moisture. We can live rain to rain, if they're timely."

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