December was cold, but drought may be abating, according to South Dakota State climatologist

December was cold, but drought may be abating, according to South Dakota State climatologist You're right, December was cold in South Dakota.

December 2000 falls into the coolest 10 percent of 110 years of record-keeping, says State Climatologist Al Bender at South Dakota State University.

It also brings back memories of the disastrous December, 1996, except that snowfall totals in western South Dakota were about twice than what they are now, said Bender.

At the start of a new year, Bender looks back at the cold December and November, then looks ahead to apparent waning of the nationwide drought, along with an apparent slow return of El Nino.

Both November and December 2000 were colder than normal this winter. They are comparable to 1996, but not quite as cold, Bender said.

This year, South Dakota temperatures averaged 25.1 degrees Fahrenheit during November, compared with 23.1 in 1996 and normal of 33.1. December, this season averaged 13.7 degrees F, compared with 11.3 in 1996 and normal of 19.9.

Snow on the ground this winter is about the same East River as it was in 1996, but West River about half what it was in 1996.

While Bender was tallying up December 1999 weather data in the start of the New Year, South Dakotans were enjoying a respite of milder temperatures that appeared they would stay around for a couple of weeks.

Early January daytime highs reached around 60 near Rapid City, and around 40 in eastern South Dakota.

So far, the winter seems to be playing out pretty much as Bender had suggested last August�cold and snowy in November and December, then moderating some.

That long-lead outlook Bender used last August from the National Weather Service was based on the waning of the cool phase La Nina to neutral conditions in the tropical Pacific.

Bender said it now looks like neutral conditions in the tropical Pacific will give way to warm phase El Nino by late spring or mid summer, Bender said. "It's kind of a slow transition, but it is progressing."

Weather for the rest of the winter, particularly Feb. 15 through March 15, will be hard to forecast. That month is known for wild swings in the weather that nobody can call.

"My concern is that this winter could continue and get tougher, but I think the probability is less than 50-50," Bender said.

"The pending El Nino doesn't really give a good indication on what next summer will be like either, but right now I'd expect no extremes. I'm not looking for excessively wet or excessively dry conditions in South Dakota next summer," Bender said.

Bender will suggest, however, waning drought conditions nationwide might be a positive sign for South Dakota. Drought conditions that often advance to the north and west toward the Northern Plains now seem to be abating.

Southern states and the Eastern Seaboard received considerable relief in snow and rain this fall and winter, Bender said. The area of the country from which drought typically advances toward South Dakota is returning to normal or above normal precipitation.

"That's positive if we're concerned about continuing drought. It doesn't eliminate the possibility of localized drought, however," Bender said. "Soil moisture conditions going into the spring are pretty good for a large part of the country."

The best bet for predicting local weather the rest of the winter will be to watch the short-term forecasts from the National Weather Service in your local news media, Bender noted.

A new long-lead outlook for February, March and April is due Jan. 17 from the National Climate Prediction Center.

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