According to the latest climate outlook released Dec. 15 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), climatologists predict colder than average temperatures throughout the winter in South Dakota.

 “Consistent with winters that have had La Nina influences, colder than average temperatures are favored in the northern Plains region through the rest of the winter season,” said Laura Edwards, Acting State Climatologist & SDSU Extension Climate Field Specialist, referencing the monthly and seasonal temperature and precipitation outlook issued by NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

 The January outlook suggests colder temperatures for western South Dakota. “If we look at the next three months - January thru March - all of the state is predicted to experience colder than average temperatures,” Edwards said.

 She added that there is less certainty in the Dec. 15, 2016 forecast than November’s outlook because La Nina is expected to fade in the late winter and early spring. 

 “We depend upon La Nina as our most reliable climate pattern in the winter season. When La Nina fades, it makes for uncertainty because climate computer models struggle with changes in atmospheric patterns, like where the jet stream will set up or cold air intrusions, that last less than a month or two,” Edwards explained.

Edwards added that there are other climate patterns that can influence our winter season. 

 “This week’s extreme cold conditions are partly due to a shift in the jet stream which brought in cold air from the Arctic and Canada,” she said. Another thing that can influence climate in the northern Plains is water temperatures in the northern oceans, which can affect airflow pattern around the North Pole. “These kinds of shifts can affect our weather and climate on timescales of one-to-three weeks and are sometimes difficult to forecast months in advance.”

 Fortunately, South Dakotans were given plenty of warning because climate computer models were able to capture December’s change in temperature as the region transitioned from very warm to very cold temperatures within just a few weeks’ time.

Precipitation

According to the outlook, Edwards said there is no clear indication of precipitation or snowfall for January. 

 “The climate outlook shows equal chances of wetter, drier and near average precipitation in the month ahead,” she said. “Looking out to March, the western region of South Dakota is slightly more likely to have wetter conditions overall.” 

 A wetter than average season could be good news for western South Dakota agricultural producers. 

 “This could benefit winter wheat, which experienced a challenging dry and warm fall season,” Edwards said. “A wet early spring could potentially help some areas that need a little moisture boost.”

 She added that this outlook could also help pasture and forage negatively impacted by drought in 2016 recover.

 “The predicted precipitation could provide critical moisture for some early season grasses. The drought conditions in the west worsened this fall, and any early spring moisture would be welcome to prevent further degradation next year,” Edwards said.

On the bright side

Edwards explains that one benefit to the colder than average weather experienced in December, is the soil has finally become frozen and is now able to hold moisture levels steady.

“Hopefully the soil will retain this moisture for use in the spring by crops, pastures and other plants,” she said.

Added stress to livestock operations

Feedlots and other livestock operations have had to prepare for the exceptional cold weather that is approaching.

 “Mud is no longer an issue for feedlot operators. The colder weather may also be good news for road crews who were challenged a couple of weeks ago, as warm ground temperatures made for icy conditions during snowstorms,” Edwards said.

 Edwards reminds South Dakotans that being prepared for extreme weather is a top priority this winter.

 “As we experience the coldest winter in three years, remember, South Dakota has had a few mild winters in recent years,” she said. “Winter weather can be extreme, but being prepared for cold and snowy might be more important this winter than the last few years.”