Soil moisture ratings in the lower Southeast, including Alabama, Georgia and Florida, were mostly in the adequate range heading into the meat of the planting season for cotton and peanuts.
But with the extreme heat and drought of 2010 still fresh in their minds, growers are worried that a fast start in the spring might be followed by drier weather in the summer and fall.
Corn planting was progressing on schedule by mid-April, and cotton producers were waiting for the soils to warm before beginning.
According to the Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC) — an organization comprised of weather experts at eight Southeastern universities — heavy rains in early spring helped to improve drought conditions in the region.
The last week of March, says the SECC, brought an active weather pattern across the Southeast U.S., characterized by an energetic jet stream with frequent low pressure systems moving across the northern Gulf of Mexico.
A slow moving cold front swept across the Southeast in late March, covering north Georgia and northeast Alabama with 1 to 3 inches of rainfall. The system stalled across central Florida and the associated squall line dumped a widespread 1 to 3 inches from Ocala, Fla., southward through Palm Beach County, with a heavier swath of 2 to 4 inches north of the Tampa area.
The recent heavy rains across the Southeast have gone a long way towards recharging soil moisture and replenishing lakes and rivers, states the SECC. “The timing of the recent rainfall was very advantageous, as drought had been intensifying over the Southeast and looked likely to worsen as we enter the spring dry seasons. The recharge provides a bit of a buffer against the onset of spring dryness and decreases the risk of more extreme drought developing.”
La Niña influence to weaken
While La Niña is expected to last through the spring, its influence on climate patterns of the Southeast should weaken considerably into May and June, say the experts.
“With La Niña less of an influence on the weather patterns of the Southeast, we can anticipate normal spring and early summer climate patterns. Normal does not necessarily imply that seasonal temperature and/or precipitation will be near the long-term average, rather that there is little inclination towards wetter, drier, warmer or colder due to events in the Pacific Ocean.
“Near-normal rainfall and temperature is the most likely, but we can also anticipate the normal variability of weather and climate to be a factor in the next several months,” says the SECC.
April and early May is the spring dry season in Florida, so the peninsula should continue to dry as temperatures and evapotranspiration increases, says the forecast.
Elsewhere in north Alabama, north Georgia and the Carolinas, spring potentially brings the last chance of meaningful recharge for surface and groundwater.
“Evapotranspiration exceeds normal rainfall during the summer months, so winter and spring recharge is important for water resources. During the summer, the Southeast is characterized by hot, humid conditions and convective thundershowers. Coverage and frequency of these afternoon thunderstorms is higher in Florida and extreme south Georgia, but more ‘hit and miss’ in the remainder of Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.
The amount and coverage of rain from summer thunderstorms varies greatly from day to day and from one location to the next.”
Over Florida, says the forecast, the onset of the summer rainy season is usually anywhere from mid-May to early June. One benefit in beginning the year in a strong La Niña is that the onset of the summer rainy season over the Southeast is often a little earlier and more robust following a winter of La Niña conditions.
“The tropical season greatly affects rainfall amounts and coverage during summer in the Southeast. One or several strikes by tropical systems, whether a hurricane or just a weak storm or depression, can bring beneficial rainfall that is a normal component of the climate.”