Red River Valley Water Supply Project

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There is one constant in North Dakota’s weather – constant change. After drought conditions made headlines throughout 2021 and into the first quarter of 2022, a soggy April and May left many communities across the state dealing with flooding.
WDAY TV Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler has spoken about the variability of our climate several times while emceeing the past two Garrison Diversion Water Conferences focused on the Red River Valley Water Supply Project. In one of his recent Weather Talk columns, he quoted an ancient English farmer’s proverb that states, “There is no debt so surely met, as wet to dry and dry to wet.” We have already witnessed dry to wet within the first half of 2022. But what will the rest of the year bring? We asked John for his insights on the switch from drought to flooding.
“Sudden swings in weather are what our climate does best. Our location in the center of the continent, far from the modifying effect of any ocean, and east of the Rocky Mountains, means that it is relatively easy for polar weather to drop south or for tropical weather to come north,” John explains. “Short-term water needs, particularly agricultural, can develop quickly during summer. Two weeks without rain would be stressful on most crops as well as neighborhood yards. However, the wet spring has given us some groundwater to fall back on, making a serious, high-impact drought this summer a lot less likely. Nevertheless, as always in our climate, we should expect the unexpected.”
John says there are a couple different ways to try to predict what the rest of the summer will bring. The Climate Prediction Center’s Long-Lead Outlook indicates a second year of La Niña in the Pacific Ocean which creates a higher-than-average likelihood that temperatures will be warmer and drier than an average summer. The summer of 2021 was certainly a good example of a warmer and drier than average period for North Dakota. But he says our cool and wet spring may cause the opposite effect. “The wet soils suggest rainier and cooler than average conditions at least through the early summer because of the evaporation into the air of all this groundwater.”
Medium range weather models, which John considers a little more concrete than global patterns such as La Niña, have been forecasting a change in the jet stream which would suggest warmer weather. “However, the models keep putting off the warm weather. Adding to the uncertainty is the possibility of the Northern Plains ridge coming up just far enough to bring warmer weather but not far enough to dry us out, which could mean an active thunderstorm pattern,” he explains, “What this all means, is that we don’t know what the summer will bring. But if it is going to dry up again, that would be more likely later in the summer.”
Longer term, John says it is likely the region will lean toward a drier pattern over the next 20 to 30 years, compared to the past 20 or 30 years. “The atmosphere today and over the next few decades will be generally warmer and more humid than a few decades ago due to heat trapping in the lower atmosphere from greenhouse emissions. Although it is misguided and over simplistic to blame any particular weather pattern on this, it is intuitive that as this heat trapping increases, there will be an overall tendency for droughts to become longer and more severe due to the increasing overall temperature. Global climate models suggest the simultaneous increase in evaporation and humidity will mean that future wet periods, particularly during the next decade or two, will have a higher potential to be very wet. If anything, our extreme weather could become even more extreme,” he says.

John adds that the historic Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, which is still considered “extreme” 90 years later, happened largely without the influence of global climate change.