By Alta LeCompteLas Cruces Bulletin
The figures are just in: January 2014 was the driest ever recorded in New Mexico.
The overall outlook for the growing season is, however, far more complicated than a single, stark statistic.
Speaking at the annual New Mexico Chile Conference Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, state climatologist David DuBois looked at both short- and long-term shifts at state and national weather patterns.
Statewide, the only precipitation in January was in the higher elevations, which could be a good thing because that moisture ultimately may flow south into our area, he said.
“I’m pleased about that,” DuBois said.
Also speaking at the conference were experts on topics such as disease management, crop rotation and cover crops.
DuBois noted that soil moisture in the middle Rio Grande currently is “pretty good” – comparable to 2010 when the area was coming out of an El Niņo, which originates in the PacificOcean and brings moisture to New Mexico.
“The trend since 2000 for the U.S. has been 40 percent of the country has been in some form of drought. That’s a big thing to ponder about,” DuBois said.
In 2011, some 50 percent of New Mexico was in extreme drought.
“It went away with the big September rain, but there is still a lot of drought in the state. There’s been a lot of healing in terms of drought, but there’s still a lot of it there. It will take long time to completely heal.”
DuBois said climatologists get an inkling of emerging weather patterns by studying surface water temperature at the equator.
“That’s quite a funky way to do it,” he said of scientists seeking weather insights from “a little box in the middle of the ocean. We don’t look at air temperatures, we look at the ocean. It’s now at neutral, with a forecast for warming, which is good. When it warms, that means an El Niņo.”
Ocean warming that leads to an El Niņowith abundant precipitation in the western desert is much harder to anticipate than this Saturday’s forecast. New technology, however, is improving climatologists’ chances of getting it right when they look downthe road.
“We had a double dose of La Niņa in 2008, 1999, 194, 1971, 1955 and 1950,” DuBois said. “It was really dry.
“No one knows for sure whether that will repeat itself.”
DuBois said the outlook now is at neutral and it’s too early to get a clear picture of what the 2014 growing season will bring.
The forecast, however is for the oceans to warm, which could lead to an El Niņo.
“It’s possible we could have an El Niņo later this year,” he said. “It’s too early to tell, but models are showing tendencies.”
In the near term, from February to April, New Mexico temperatures are expected to be 40 to 50 percent above average, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of drier conditions, DuBois said. He noted, however, the New Mexico maps don’t include Colorado, which is a source of water for the Rio Grande valley.
“It could go either way for Colorado,” he said. “The only good thing on these maps is they’re not showing a tendency to be dry in Colorado.”
DuBois said the seasonal drought outlook for the U.S. calls for about normal temperatures and below normal precipitation.
“The forecast is a tendency for drought conditions intensifying,” he said of the national picture.
In answer to an audience question about the impact of precipitation on chile yields, DuBois said the effect on the crop will depend on the timing of whatever rain falls during the growing season.
“The question is, are we prepared for another dry season? It’s a possibility and we need to be ready.”
DuBois said climatologists like to give warnings of what might happen so that growers can be prepared to adverse conditions.
“How should we be changing our methods if the monsoon doesn’t start until late July?” he asked. “With that possible scenario, how would think about practices and planning now?”