2021 Weather Outlook: Is 2021 Shaping Up to Match Drought of 2012?

2021 is off to a dry start and as La Niña continues, one meteorologist sees dry conditions expanding in the West over the next few months.
2021 is off to a dry start and as La Niña continues, one meteorologist sees dry conditions expanding in the West over the next few months.
(Lori Hays)

From concerns of ongoing flooding to start 2020, to renewed worries about developing drought, 2020 was an eventful weather year. The U.S. saw a historic number of named tropical storms and the year ended with a monstrous winter storm hitting the Northeast.

So, what could be in store for 2021? USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey says dryness concerns aren’t going away in the New Year.

 “There is a significant risk of drought persisting or even intensifying during the winter of 2020-21 and into the spring of 2021 from southern California to the central and southern Great Plains,” says Rippey. “By late winter, dryness could become a concern in the lower Southeast.  Conversely, the Northwest should experience a wet winter (and drought relief).  The eastern Corn Belt and the Northeast may also be wet during the winter and early spring. “

Rippey adds La Niña aided the dryness to round out the second half of 2020, and he doesn’t see that changing in the new year.

"La Niña (will be) exerting an increasingly strong influence on North American weather patterns,” says Rippey. “The northern (polar) jet stream is quite strong and amplified, as expected, and the southern (subtropical) jet stream is weak.  One saving grace for places like Oklahoma and portions of neighboring states is that several recent storms have gotten trapped beneath -or cut off from-the northern jet stream, leading to some beneficial rain and snow.”

Even with recent moisture, Rippey says there is still considerable stress on the wheat crop in the Southern Great Plains. He points out the U.S. winter wheat condition is in the worst shape growers have seen since the fall of 2012. He says those deteriorating conditions are being propelled by dry conditions in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas.

“La Niña-driven weather impacts should last through the spring of 2021 – and possibly longer if La Niña does not fade away with the arrival of the warm season,” says Rippey. “Multi-year La Niña episodes have occurred several times, including 2010-12 and 1998-2001.”


 The dryness and growing drought conditions are now sprouting concerns 2021 could produce a similar weather pattern to 2012. As much of the western half of the U.S. is already experiencing drought, Rippey says the flashbacks to 2012 are grounded.

 “The southwestern quadrant of the country, from southern California to the central and southern Great Plains, should remain drier than normal into the spring 2021 planting season,” says Rippey. “Drought in the Southwest could also lead to irrigation water shortages in 2021.  Parts of the Midwest – particularly the western Corn Belt – are experiencing soil moisture shortages.  While dry conditions are favorable for planting progress, plenty of rain will be needed in drier sections of the Midwest during the summer of 2021 to maintain favorable corn and soybean yield prospects.”

Not every state in the U.S. is experiencing drought. Rippey says the Southeastern and middle Atlantic States are currently in the best shape in terms of soil moisture. 

“In fact, excessive moisture in places like Virginia and North Carolina have hampered harvest efforts for crops such as cotton and soybeans,” says Rippey. “Much of the eastern Corn Belt is currently in pretty good shape, except for a strip of dryness extending from central Illinois to near Lake Erie.  Soil moisture has begun to improve in the Northwest but more storminess will be needed to sustain drought recovery.”

Is 2021 shaping up to be a historic year in the terms of weather outlooks? Rippey says not quite.

“Despite the current coverage of drought – 49 percent of the Lower 48 States in drought on the Dec. 8 U.S. Drought Monitor – it’s unlikely that U.S. drought in 2021 will reach the agricultural magnitude of the 2012 drought,” says Rippey.

His reasoning behind his 2020 outlook is two-fold. The first being the drought covers much of the western half of the country, but a relatively small area of the Corn Belt and the second factor is the eastern Corn Belt has a tendency to see a wetter bias with  La Niña .

“The eastern Corn Belt tends to be stormy during La Niña winters, increasing the odds that many corn and soybean production areas east of the Mississippi River should have abundant moisture for the spring 2021 planting season,” says Rippey.

Still, Rippey says ongoing drought isn’t out of the question, with his biggest concern being with possible flash drought in the Corn Belt.

“I want to caution that rapidly expanding ‘flash drought’ cannot be ruled out for the Midwest in spring/summer 2021, as major weather pattern changes can happen quickly, without warning,” he says.  “While warning signs with lack of snow and  dry soils were apparent across the parts of the Midwest in the spring of 2012, historic drought could not have happened without a pattern change in late spring that locked in hot, dry weather.”

Rippey says La Niña shows up in different ways, but it does favor increasing U.S. drought coverage. However, he says the “footprint” of that drought differs with every La Niña comes in a different “flavor.” 

“Just for fun, compare the U.S. Drought Monitor map from early December 2011  to what’s going on now,” says Rippey. “There are quite a few differences, and a lot can happen between now and next summer.”

Related Stories: 

2021 Outlook: Is the Stage Set for $5 Corn in the New Year?

2021 Livestock Market Outlook Roundup


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