The Weather Man brought farmers a typhoon of mostly good news during his annual address Tuesday, but he also warned that a perpetual cycle conducive to the continued threat of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest has emerged.
Art Douglas, a retired professor from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, has been bringing his forecast to the Spokane Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum since 1978.
He did miss a couple of years for personal reasons, but Douglas’ prognostications have earned nearly legendary status because they have proved to be eerily accurate over the past several years.
“My mentor told me that next to human nature, the weather is the second-most difficult thing to forecast,” he said before his presentation.
He noted that it was nice to see moisture on the ground in Spokane when he arrived on Monday.
“Considering we have had an El Niño, we’ve lucked out,” he said.
Douglas said Eastern Washington can expect conditions to dry out as the winter transitions into spring. He expects a dry March and April before moisture picks up in May and June.
“East of the Cascades, it looks like you will have near-normal precipitation for the summer,” Douglas said. “So, it’s not a bad forecast. The temperatures are slightly above normal in the summer. I think overall, you are going to eke out with relatively good weather for your spring and summer crop.”
At the end of the presentation, one of the attendees asked Douglas about his prediction for the local 2024 fire season.
“In the western United States as we go from a wet June, we get warmer and drier July and August. So, that’s not good,” he said. “It’s not going to be better this year. Let’s put it that way. There’s no reason to think it won’t be there as a problem.”
Douglas said the weather conditions that drive many of the storms, jet streams and pressure systems to the region generally fall under what’s called El Niño or La Niña.
El Niño, or “little boy” in Spanish, tends to have trade winds that blow warm water from South America to Asia. It generally brings hotter, dryer conditions to the Northwest while La Niña, or “little girl,” is marked by colder Pacific Ocean water that pushes the jet stream north towards Alaska and brings colder, wetter systems that feed snowpack into area mountains.
Douglas said weather patterns tend to gravitate to one or the other.
“It either wants to be like this or that,” he said. “La Niña’s typically last two to three years. The transition takes about six to eight months. El Niños typically last a year to a year-and-a-half.”
That being said, very odd warm water near Japan and in the North Atlantic caused the current El Niño to act differently this winter, especially for the Spokane area.
Normally, its trade winds push moisture through California into Arizona.
“The trough in the north Pacific was stronger than expected. The trough extended further inland, and it also got up into the Pacific Northwest,” he said.
“And that’s why you have continued to have good moisture.”
But those forces finally have driven south, inundating California with major storms that have caused flooding.
“It means that your moisture is going to gradually go downhill as we keep on going with this El Niño event during the month of February and March,” Douglas said. “After having normal to above-normal precipitation over the last two to three months, it looks like you are going to slip to drier than normal.”
While farmers can expect a dryer transition to spring, the region probably will not see any further cold snaps, he said.
“The forecast calls for a high-pressure ridge in Canada. That high-pressure ridge … basically keeps all the arctic cold to the north,” Douglas said. “So, as we go forward, it’s very unlikely we are going to see any arctic outbreaks in February into the United States under this particular pattern.
“I think this is a pretty favorable forecast. The rest of the spring is near normal to slightly cooler than normal.”
The outlook for summer includes about average rainfall for June and July, as temperatures gradually get hotter.
“And then it looks like in August in the Northwest, its going to turn quite dry,” Douglas said.
The ‘picture for the globe’
After his forecast, Douglas showed a couple of charts that track ocean temperatures from both the Pacific and North Atlantic oceans.
With variations, the chart from 1950 to 1998 showed a steady line for temperatures in both locations. The water temperatures from 1998 to 2023 from the same areas have risen, on average, about 1 degree Celsius in both locations.
“Both oceans have done it about the same period of time,” Douglas said. “Maybe global warming did it and now we are staying at a new state.”
During that time, moisture has increased in the Midwest states.
“That’s partly why the U.S. has done so will with crop production in the last 10 years,” Douglas said. “On the other hand, the part of the U.S. that has been suffering is the Western (states).”
While the Corn Belt has fared well, summers in the Pacific Northwest “have turned awfully dry,” Douglas said.
“So, it’s not surprising that if you have that extended period of dryness, that you are going to have a lot of fires.”
One of the attendees asked Douglas whether conditions causing global warming have increased or publicity about global warming has increased.
He responded: Both.
“You can’t look at TV or the newspaper without seeing some kind of comment about global warming,” he said. “We are speeding up global warming because of all the burning that is going on in the tropics.”
He also said humans have continually increased emissions of both carbon dioxide and methane, which takes more than 100 years to break down in the atmosphere.
“Where are we headed? I don’t know,” Douglas said. “I don’t think it’s a really pretty picture for the globe.
“But I also think Mother Nature has ways of taking care of things.”