What you call “crazy weather,” Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken calls “climate variability.”
And variable it has been. Since 2012, Midwest farmers have endured wild swings in precipitation and temperature. From crippling drought in Nebraska to brutal heat in Kansas to mega-sized blizzards in South Dakota to November tornadoes in Illinois to 1,000-year floods in Colorado -- to the lay person it may appear that extreme weather is now the norm.
“I don’t think we can be much more extreme than we have been,” Doesken says. “We’ve pretty much seen the envelope of what climate has to deliver. It seems like it’s time to sit back and have some easier going for awhile.”
Doesken gives a climate update to farmers each year at the Colorado Farm Show in Greeley. This year was no different, coming off a pretty wild harvest for Northern Colorado farmers who were drenched in historic flooding. The Farm Show conversation was quick to turn to climate change, a topic Doesken has grappled with personally. Questions like, “Were September’s floods because of global warming?” and “Are humans the cause?” and “Are we farmers still going to be around in 50 years?” are common for Doesken.
But even as more and more, research suggests links between climate change and extreme weather, pinning climate change to a particular weather event that happens right now is still dicey. What is an observable symptom of climate change to some, is simply climate variability to others.
“I come from an agricultural background,” Doesken said. “These folks know climate variability. And they know you can’t blame every extreme on climate change.”
Farmers are acutely aware of weather swings. For many, their livelihoods depend on it. A hailstorm can strip your corn crop. Intense heat can wither your vegetables. So at the Farm Show, Doesken was forced to bring out his crystal ball. The ranchers and farmers in the crowd wanted to know: What can we expect for 2014?
The answer is a bit underwhelming. Doesken was forced to say, “I don’t know,” to many of the audience’s climate-related questions. The technology just isn’t there yet, Doesken says, to give farmers a precise forecast several months away.
The biggest predictors of long term weather patterns are ocean temperatures, Doesken says. How warm or cool the Pacific or Atlantic ocean currently is, can influence which sections of the country receive more or less precipitation. This winter has been what’s called a “No Nino” where Pacific ocean temperatures are about average, giving little indication for the upcoming spring.
Doesken was able to give some insight into 2014. Drought is already plaguing the West Coast. More dryness could be coming for the Great Plains. The current drought outlook from the Climate Prediction Center shows drought likely to creep back into Kansas, Nebraska, and parts of eastern Colorado. But that’s not exactly a surprise, it’s an area of the country Doesken says is “constantly flirting with drought.”
When it comes to precipitation in the crucial spring planting months, the outlook is hazier. Climate scientists are predicting below average precipitation in the Southwest and equal chances of above average and below average precipitation for much of the Midwest.
That’s where much of the presentation stayed, in the present. Farmers wanted to know about 2014, as they plan out which crops to plant and harvest this growing season, not the even more opaque climate change forecasts for decades from now.