Many Americans look forward to May as a pleasant period between the winter chill and summer heat, but the simultaneous occurrence of frigid snowstorms and scorching wildfires late last week has already made this month one for the record books.
In California and the Southwest, drought conditions ranged from bad to worse, even as the winter storm prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue flash flood warnings in Missouri and Illinois.
On Friday, according to the National Weather Service, a total of 55 communities, mostly in the South and Southwest, set new records for low temperatures for that day and another 11 tied the old record.
And in the upper Midwest, a "blocking" high-pressure system across the Mississippi Valley forced a downward push of cold, upper-atmosphere air into Gulf of Mexico moisture carried by the jet stream, resulting in the heaviest May snows ever recorded in parts of northern Iowa, western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, including eastern portions of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.
The southern Minnesota town of Blooming Prairie, west of Rochester, recorded 15-plus inches of snow Thursday, shattering the previous state snowfall record for the month of May, when 12 inches was recorded in 1954 near Bemidji in northern Minnesota.
Half an inch of snow fell as far south as Kansas City, Mo., Thursday night, the latest measurable snow that has ever been recorded there, said Patrick Slattery of NOAA's Central Region office.
Travel on Interstate 35 between Des Moines and Minnesota's Twin Cities was deemed "hazardous" by state highway authorities as snow-covered lanes snarled traffic and slippery conditions jack-knifed tractor trailers. And an estimated 20,000 homes and businesses in Minnesota lost power as dense snow made power lines sag and overmatched utility transformers.
'Downright record smashing'
"This would be a big headline storm for January or March ... but for May 2nd it's downright record smashing," Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist Paul Huttner wrote on the station's "Updraft" blog, dedicated to weather and climate issues.
The frontal boundary made a westward drift Friday, as another half-inch of slushy snow fell in the Twin Cities in the morning before turning over to rain, with highs in the low to mid-40s Fahrenheit.
Seeking a silver lining to the region's delayed spring, Minnesota's Climatology Working Group noted that in a normal May, foliage in southern Minnesota would be more developed, meaning last week's heavy snow would have created more strain on tree branches, "perhaps amplifying the impact of downed limbs on power lines."
Slattery said the snow is probably not enough to entirely reverse drought conditions in the region.
"For much of the area, the drought was at its most severe extent, and when your soil gets that dry and that hungry for water, it takes a lot," he said.
Elsewhere, land still parched
Despite modest improvement, the U.S. Drought Monitor still showed nearly half the United States blanketed in drought as of its April 30 report, with large patches of "exceptional" and "extreme" drought situated over central New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, and parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Winter wheat crops have proved dismal in such conditions: More than half the Colorado winter wheat crop was rated "poor" to "very poor," and 68 percent of Texas' crop was similarly rated.
In some parts of Colorado, total precipitation for the past six months is less than 30 percent of normal. During the past three years, New Mexico has experienced the driest conditions since the 1950s, resulting in fierce water-rights feuds (ClimateWire, April 11).
Many areas did see improved conditions in April, including Georgia, North Carolina, Wyoming, South Dakota and parts of northeastern Colorado.
But the Drought Monitor report didn't hold out much hope for spring runoff for the West, as dry conditions in April crept up the California coast and into Oregon.
"Reservoirs rely primarily on spring and early summer snowmelt, but where the snowpack is well below normal, they are going to have trouble refilling this year," Alan Haynes, a service coordination hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said during an April teleconference. "If next year is also dry, there could start to be some serious water shortages."
Fires rage early, and many pray for rain
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles area will likely soon record its fourth-driest year since the late 1800s, and an unprecedentedly early fire season is already off to a blazing start.
On Wednesday, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) issued a report saying that the January-through-April wet season in Northern California was incredibly weak, resulting in "fuels near record dry levels and grasses curing about a month ahead of schedule." Southern California fuels were also primed for ignition after April rainfall fell 25 percent below normal.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that since January, it has dealt with more than 680 fires, 200 more than normal for this time of year. Just last week, the NIFC reported 11 fires had started in Southern California.
On Friday, the Springs fire north of Los Angeles raged over about 10,000 acres, threatening 4,000 homes and causing evacuation orders to be issued for hundreds of families.
The fires were made worse by the unusual appearance of the Santa Ana winds, which reached speeds of 40 mph Thursday evening, AccuWeather.com meteorologists reported Friday. These winds normally take place in fall and winter.
South-central Oregon, southeastern Arizona, western New Mexico and northern Virginia should also prepare for a bad fire season, the NIFC report states, and conditions are unlikely to improve soon because summer temperatures are projected to rise above average for most of the United States.
With little good news coming from meteorologists and government officials, residents in drought-stricken states have turned to heaven for help. According to the Associated Press, faith communities in New Mexico and Texas held special gatherings Sunday to pray for the drought to end. On Wednesday, an interfaith service dedicated to rain was held in Oklahoma City.
New Mexico's Archdiocese of Santa Fe also posted a prayer for precipitation on its Facebook page:
"Almighty God, we are in need of rain. We realize now, looking up into the clear, blue sky, what a marvel even the least drop of rain really is. ... Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain."
Reporter Ines Perez contributed.
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