NOAA says El Niño’s departure leaves some Western drought this spring, and flooding in the South and East possible

March 21, 2003 — NOAA forecasters say they are increasingly confident that drought will linger in areas of the West and floods could possibly threaten portions of the South and East during the spring of 2003.

At a news conference held today in Washington, D.C., NOAA officials said El Niño’s influence on the nation’s fall and winter precipitation patterns was not enough to alleviate the multi-year drought and serious water supply shortages over much of the Western United States (including parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, and New Mexico).

However, winter precipitation from El Niño helped wipe out abnormally dry conditions in the East.

“We can say goodbye to El Niño in the next month or so,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “Depending on where you live or play, you’re either thankful for the drought-busting Eastern rains and snow, or disappointed by the lack of Western snow pack.”

Lautenbacher said 2002-2003 winter weather has set the stage for the spring outlook. “The winter weather pattern has given us the tale of two regions. With snow pack levels below normal, the multi-year drought in the West will linger through spring. The East reversed its fortunes going from widespread drought to many areas that are much wetter than normal. In the Northeast, snow melt and river ice will increase the chances of flooding for more than a month.”

For the contiguous U.S., on average the past winter was not unusual as it was the 31st warmest and 58th driest out of the last 109 years, but average conditions were not the norm.

For the winter season as a whole, temperatures averaged well above the long-term average from the West Coast into the Upper Midwest, and Alaska had its second warmest year on record (since 1918). In contrast, 27 states in the eastern half of the United States had significantly cooler than average winter temperatures.

“During this past winter, drought persisted in many of the same areas of the Western U.S. that have experienced drought for three or more years, with many areas still requiring unusually heavy precipitation to end the long-term drought by summer’s end,” said Tom Karl, director of the NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

This contrasted sharply with areas to the east and south that experienced significantly wetter than average conditions with some record snowfalls.

Spring Outlook

The U.S. spring outlook for April through June calls for above normal temperatures in the western third of the nation and in Alaska. Southern Texas may be a bit cooler than normal. The chances for above-normal rainfall are increased in the far Northwest, parts of the Southwest and southern Texas.

“The wet fall and winter from eastern Texas to the Ohio Valley and eastward to the Atlantic has already resulted in some flooding this year, and we expect flooding to remain a threat across the area,” said John Jones, deputy assistant administrator of the NOAA National Weather Service.

In the Northeast, cold conditions and heavy winter snows set the stage for possible spring flooding. Thick ice on rivers in eastern New York and northern New England could lead to ice jam flooding. If heavy rains combine with rapid snow melt, serious flooding could be possible.

The NOAA National Weather Service reported, because the Midwest and northern Plains received considerably less snow than normal, the current focus is on the possibility of drought rather than normal spring snow melt flooding. However, NOAA warns spring rains on frozen soils could still lead to flash flooding. “We urge people not to become complacent. Even during droughts, flooding-deadly flooding-is possible,” said Jones.

As a result of precipitation shortfalls from the West into the Midwest, drought and water supply problems loom. In many areas in the West, reservoirs have been drawn down as a result of three or more consecutive dry years. A considerable portion of snow melt from a generally meager mountain snow pack will be absorbed by parched soils, further reducing inflow into reservoirs. Barring unusually heavy precipitation in the next few months, weather and climate forecasters at NOAA predict bleak water supply conditions will affect broad areas in the West this summer.

“With El Niño’s influence fading, the major factor this spring is the long term, multi-year water shortages in parts of the West,” said Jones. “The wet season will end in the West in the next several weeks. Afterward, significant widespread precipitation is unlikely until the summer monsoon season or when precipitation typically resumes in the fall of 2003.”

NOAA advises spring weather requires the public to stay abreast of the day-to-day weather fluctuations by listening to NOAA Weather Radio and commercial radio and television broadcasts for advisories, watches and warnings to take proper precautions. Spring weather can change quickly-from drought to flash floods.

Meteorological spring began on March 1. The vernal equinox is March 21.

The 2003 spring outlook is a consolidated effort of the NOAA National Weather Service and the NOAA National Climatic Data Center. The National Weather Service (including the Climate Prediction Center and the Hydrologic Services Program) is the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and its territories.

The NOAA National Weather Service operates the most advanced weather and flood warning and forecast system in the world, helping to protect lives and property and enhance the national economy. The NOAA National Climatic Data Center is the nation’s primary source of space-based meteorological and climate data.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U. S. Department of Commerce.

Relevant Web Sites

The Climate of 2003 – February 2003 in Historical Perspective (

NOAA Climate Prediction Center (

NOAA National Climatic Data Center (

NOAA U.S. Drought Assessment (