ST. LOUIS (AP) — While winter has been unforgiving to most
of the Midwest, the next several months will dictate the season’s impact on
all-important sectors, such as shipping and farming.
Fast-melting snow in the northern Midwest likely won’t be
able to soak into the frozen ground, meaning excess water would feed into
tributaries and ultimately the Mississippi River, raising water levels and
affecting barge traffic. Meanwhile, more snow on key farming states could delay
the planting of corn, mirroring last year’s late start.
Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought
Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, spoke to the Associated Press
about how the rest of the winter could impact agriculture and river shipping.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow:
Q: Can you describe the severity
of the winter in terms of the snow accumulations in the Midwest so far?
A: The farther east you go, they have had more snow, more
moisture. And the farther west you go, as you get into central Iowa into eastern
and central Nebraska, there hasn’t been a lot of snow. This time of year ... we
look at how deep that frost layer does go into the soils, because realistically
that is the frozen moisture in the ground that we’re going to be looking at come
With a lot of the snow that sits atop that, if we get these
warm-ups during the winter, very little of that water will infiltrate into the
ground because of the frost, so you do get more runoff this time of year.
Q: For states that are no stranger
to brutal winters and abundant snowfall, is the Corn Belt seeing above-average
A: Not really. I think the places in the central to western
areas of the region have below-normal snowfall where others eastward have had
what I consider typical. The farther east you go, it has been colder and wetter.
But I just don’t think we’ve had a winter like this for a while, with the cold
It’s way too early to say that we’re going to end up below
normal for the winter as far as snow. There’s still a lot of time. Even for some
places that are kind of lagging for snow and moisture this winter, from what we
saw last year it can change in a hurry. When melt-off does come it could be
Q: What are the implications for
spring in terms of melt-off and inland rivers?
A: I think it’s a little too early. Even with the good fall
rains and the recharge of the soil, it went really well into the top 18 inches
or so of the soil — what I call the topsoil layer. That deeper soil layer didn’t
see as much of that moisture.
That being said, with the snowfall that we’ve had this
winter and as we go into spring melt, there is room for more of that moisture to
go into the soil profile. If we end up getting some of those wet, heavy snows
toward the end of the snow season again, and we warm up right away ... that’s
going to be more cause for flood potential than if we see a slow, gradual
melt-off and slower warm-up.
The conditions we see in the end of March and the first part
of April are really going to dictate flood potential.
Q: Along those lines, will the
climate this spring dictate how quickly farmers can get back in their fields?
A: Yeah. Last spring, we were cold and we stayed cold. Most
producers were several weeks behind in getting their crops in the fields and
even those who got in early had some issues because it just didn’t warm up until
mid-May. As much as you like to plan and prepare, the one thing we can’t control
is the weather, and that’s always the curveball.
Q: We’ve dealt routinely in recent
years with questions about river levels. What’s your gut telling you about them
A: In 2012, we were at the very low end of the spectrum, and
2011 we were at the very high end with a lot of flooding. Then last year we
still had some reduced flows and levels, but they seemed to rebound fairly
quickly. To see that quick rebound is telling me that ... we’re in way better
shape than we were in 2012.
We still have ample opportunity to accumulate moisture
through the winter. How quickly we warm up in the spring is going to ... dictate
how much stress is put on those rivers with the water that they can handle.
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