Forecasts of both drought and potential flooding may seem like an oxymoron, but a look at weather patterns in the region reveals, depending on what sort of spring is ahead, the chance for both.
While the flood risks are minimal, the region is expecting a severe drought if conditions don't begin to improve in the coming weeks.
Jeff Boyne, forecaster with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, explains that due to a thaw in January followed by low temperatures, a hard, concrete-like frost has formed on topsoils. In some areas, like Vernon County, Wis., this frost is three feet thick and is preventing moisture from getting into the soil. Instead, moisture is running off into streams, lakes and rivers—causing a threat of flooding in some areas.
The Mississippi River in Winona is not likely to reach dangerous flood levels, although the risk of tributary flooding is still a potential worry. "If we don't see a huge warm-up to get rid of that snow at one time, the flooding risk is low," said Boyne.
What would be best, said Boyne, is a slow, gradual warm-up, and then some slow, steady rain.
Right now, the region is pegged for a severe drought; however, Boyne said forecasts show conditions will likely improve, taking the region into the "moderate drought" level. Forecasters will also watch weather patterns into the summer, as any significant dry stretch may mean a more substantial drought. A potential "La Niña" weather pattern, which typically brings hot, dry conditions, may be on the horizon for the summer months.
Right now, temperatures are conducive to some light melting during the day, then refreezing at night, which Boyne said is a good pattern to ensure that a quick melt does not bring all the current moisture into streams, lakes and rivers, and is absorbed into the soil. If such a pattern continues, followed by slow and repeated rain events, the region may avoid significant drought conditions that could threaten to affect the large agricultural industry in the Midwest.
In Western Minnesota, residents along the Red River of the North are bracing for what might be a major flood, after the area experienced major to record flooding in the spring of 2011.
Locally, a 50 percent chance of rain beginning Saturday, with rain in the forecast on Sunday and a 30 percent chance on Monday, may bring some of what is needed to stave off drought conditions in the region.