Winter Precipitation Helped Some in Drought, May Hurt Others

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, Staff Writer
March 15, 2013; 4:06 AM ET
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California's irrigation systems will see less water in the summer as a result of below-normal snowpacks this winter. Photo by Dave Willman.

Winter precipitation amounts caused national drought levels to drop from 57.7 percent to 54.2 from January to February. Winter wheat crops in the southern Plains, in particular, benefited from a few late-season snow storms that impacted the country in recent weeks. Wichita, Kan., had its wettest February on record with 21.2 inches of snow. More than half of that amount, 14.2 inches, came from one storm that shut down airports on Feb. 21. Amarillo, Texas, also received a surprising amount of snow, accumulating 19 inches in one day.

Overall, the contiguous 48 had the 15th largest amount of seasonal snowcover for the 1966-present record with 127,000 more square miles of coverage than the 1981-2010 average. Several states had one of their top 10 wettest winters, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. Massachusetts brought in its eighth wettest winter, and Rhode Island had its third. Alaska had 32 percent above its normal precipitation amounts. These above-average rain and snow amounts were seen across the Upper Midwest down to the Gulf Coast, with some of the biggest impacts in New England and the central Plains.

The increase in the Plains has also helped barge transportation. Many waterways in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were blocked off from barges because of low water levels. This slowed traffic and led to route restrictions. Now water levels are up, and formerly closed areas are now deep enough for transport.

However, despite the higher-than-normal precipitation amounts in these areas, areas with record dryness dropped the national average below normal by 0.12 of an inch. The northern Plains, West Coast and the Rockies had very low precipitation amounts this winter. The biggest disparity was felt in California, which had the driest January to February on record with only 1.75 inches of precipitation. The average is 8.28 inches.

Winter storms had a positive impact on some drought-stricken areas, but many are still facing exceptional levels. Drought map by NOAA.

AccuWeather Expert Meteorologist Dale Mohler warns that this could be a problem for them this summer.

"The season started out stormy for the West Coast but became quite tranquil," he said. "That's bad news for the snowpack in California. That snow is needed to help fill the reservoirs when it melts in the spring. Without it, they won't have as much water to irrigate crops."

The main citrus areas of Florida in southern and central parts of the state are also being affected by a drier-than-normal winter, which will lead them into a drier start to spring. Other areas of the South, especially Georgia and the southern Appalachians, were helped by late-season rain.

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Many of the areas that did get above-average precipitation also had above-average temperatures. The national average was 1.2 degrees warmer than usual. In states east of the Rockies, temperatures rose, while the Southwest was below normal. Utah was 5.3 degrees below its typical winter, its 12th coolest on record.

Mohler said that the cause for this is a "homegrown" cold rather than Canadian cold fronts.

"They had a lot of clear, cold nights. The cold air stayed kind of trapped over the region, spreading south from the Great Basin."

Florida, Delaware and Vermont, on the other hand, had winters in their top 10 warmest.

Click here for a full story on what to expect for the growing season across much of the U.S.


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