Warmer, drier than normal winter expected across much of Georgia

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Forecasted conditions could prove problematic for farmers preparing for next growing season

Though a recent blast of cold air has forced Atlantans to dig out their heavy coats early, a warmer than normal winter is likely in store for most of Georgia, a new federal forecast shows.

The projections for December through February released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also favor a drier than average winter across much of the state. If the forecast proves accurate, the conditions could cause problems for farmers in the months to come.

The expected warmth reflects the influence of human-caused climate change, which is raising the odds for above-normal temperatures around the world, experts say.

But a stubborn La Niña pattern, which is expected to continue for a third-straight winter, is also playing a big role. A “triple-dip” La Niña, as some meteorologists have dubbed this rare event, has only occurred twice since 1950, NOAA says.

La Niña is a phenomenon driven by temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which influences global weather conditions. La Niña typically brings drier, warmer conditions to Georgia and the southern half of the U.S. and wetter weather to the northern half.

La Niña’s opposite climatological phenomenon — known as El Niño — triggers hot and dry conditions in the northern states, and an increased risk of flooding in the South. El Niño and La Niña episodes usually last nine to 12 months, but can occasionally stretch for years, according to NOAA.

In Georgia, winter precipitation is critical to recharging groundwater, streams and reservoirs, said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia. Lower winter temperatures means less of the rain and snow that falls is lost to evaporation. And with most plants dormant in winter and their roots absorbing less water, precipitation can recharge water supplies more efficiently than during other seasons.

While a dry winter isn’t always a cause for concern for farmers, it could be if it’s followed by a lack of consistent rainfall in spring and summer.

“That’s really our recharge period when we build up our bank account of water for the next growing season,” Knox said. “It just makes things a little bit more risky going into the next growing season because we may not have that reserve of water.”

Warm winter temperatures can also pose problems for farmers, especially fruit growers.

Many of Georgia’s most valuable fruit crops — like blueberries and peaches — require a certain number of hours in the cold to bear healthy fruit. Too much warmth early in winter can also trick plants into budding early, making them susceptible to freeze damage later in the season. Pests can also withstand warmer winter temperatures.

Last year, a near record-warm December pushed blueberry bushes on many south Georgia farms to bear fruit weeks earlier than normal. Then, with their plants vulnerable to a freeze, a cold snap in March caused heavy losses for some growers.

After the first six months of 2022 brought one of the warmest starts to year on record for Atlanta, temperatures across Georgia have been closer to normal in August and September, NOAA said. While Georgia has enjoyed more seasonable weather, most of the planet has endured another sweltering year, as human emissions of greenhouse gases drive average temperatures up.

The first nine months of 2022 rank as the sixth-hottest such period globally, and last month was tied for the fifth-hottest September on record, according to NOAA data.

It is nearly certain that 2022 will ultimately rank among the 10-warmest years on record, the agency has said.

“We are kind of the anomaly here and it sticks out if you look at a global map,” Knox said.


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