Warmer Midwestern winter hinges on El Nino

Thursday, October 18, 2012 | 6:19 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A warmer-than-average winter could be in store for the Midwest, but forecasters are uncertain because of a wavering El Nino in the Pacific Ocean.

El Nino, characterized by warming water near the equator in the Pacific, can affect weather patterns in the U.S. But the warming has been on the wane as of late, contributing to uncertainty at the National Weather Service about the winter forecast it issued Thursday.

The winter forecast from Anthony Lupo, chairman of the MU Department of Soil, Environment and Atmospheric Sciences, said warmer conditions would benefit Columbia residents.

"There won't be many days to shovel snow, and heating bills won't be as high," Lupo said.

Lupo predicted between 4.75 and 6 inches of rainfall and about 15 inches of snow this winter in the Midwest.

A warmer winter, Lupo said, won't help with the ongoing drought.

Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said it's unusual that the warming of the Pacific has slowed. At this point in time, Halpert said, it's not known why. 

Halpert said the drought in the Midwest was spreading and shifting west.

Bill Wiebold, professor in the MU Division of Plant Sciences, said warmer-than-normal winter temperatures could be helpful to plants. "Because of the warmer temperatures, the soil won't freeze and, if it does rain, then the water will soak into the soil," he said.

Wiebold said winter rain and snow help restore water in the soil, but he is concerned there won't be enough to prevent drought conditions in the spring.

John Schneller is supervising editor.

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