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Winter Forecast Offers Little Hope for Texas Drought Relief


By Douglas Fischer,

BOZEMAN, Mont. – It could be good, very good, to be a skier in Montana this winter.

And it may be bad, awfully bad, to be a rancher or a grower in Texas.

Federal weather forecasters released their best guess for this winter's weather for the United States on Thursday, and for many regions of the country the forecast calls for more of the same: Yet more hot, dry conditions for drought-parched Texas and the southern plains, potential for another big snowpack in the Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains.

"I've learned to be pessimistic about this particular drought," said John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist for Texas, which set a new record the driest 12 consecutive months back in September and where some counties would need 15 or more inches of rain in a month to end the drought.

Outlook for precipitation during winter 2011/12. Credit: NOAA.

Meanwhile in Montana, where a runoff-swollen Yellowstone River carried off a 12-inch pipe buried five feet under the riverbed this spring, dumping 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the river, the state is looking to see another year of unusually heavy snow.

The predictions stem mostly from continuing La Niña patterns in the Pacific Ocean — a massive pool of colder-than-normal water in the equatorial Pacific that will continue to drive long-term weather patterns across North America this winter, forecasters with the federal Climate Prediction Center said.

But forecasters say the fingerprints of climate change are apparent:

"One thing is certain: Every weather event that now happens is taking place in the context of our changing environment," said Brady Phillips, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the heat generated by heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the past 50 years. Recent research suggests global warming can worsen the effects of El Niño and La Niña events.

"While it is difficult to attribute one tornado or one downpour... to climate change, they're certainly all developing with that as a background," Phillips said.

The latest US Drought Outlook, showing the Texas drought is expected to linger. Credit: NOAA.

In Texas, a dry winter won't be devastating, said Nielsen-Gammon, the climatologist. But it will set the state up for a horrid spring.

Winter is normally a time of recharge, he said: With landscaping and agriculture demands dormant, soil moisture gets recharged and reservoir levels go back up.

"That's probably not going to happen," he said. And so the state risks repeating last year's big wild fires next spring, and growers risk another year of failed or reduced crops.

Elsewhere in the United States, the long-term temperature forecast calls for warmer than normal weather from New Mexico through much of the Southeast, while California and the Northwest should see colder weather than usual. For a large band running through the central United States to the East Coast, computer models were too uncertain to make a call, giving equal chances of higher, lower and normal temperature, NOAA forecasters said.

For precipitation, Florida had the highest probability for lower-than-normal rainfall through February, followed by Texas. The Northwest, northern plains and Great Lakes region had good odds for above-average rain and snow. is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change and a Climate Central content partner. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at


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