Spring 2019: By the Stats

“Indeed, there have been tornadoes this 2019 spring, but the big story ‘far and away’ is the overall agricultural economic impact of damages caused by the incessant heavy rains and flooding across a large swath of the nation’s heartland…as one meteorologist put it.  “It was a ‘perfect storm’ in regard to all the flooding, which has been relentless from March to now.  So, how the excessive snowmelt and heavy rainfall occurred…has been a double whammy.  Impacts from the record precipitation and river flooding across the Upper Midwest, Central Plains, and Ohio River valley the first five months of 2019 easily exceeded $one-billion,” said Victor Murphy, Climate Service Program Manager; National Weather Service Southern Region Headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. 

“That’s a lot of geography, and the Missouri River, the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River at have all been in major flood this spring. At Davenport, IA/Quad Cities area (Illinois/Iowa border,) the Mississippi River was above flood stage for more than 100 consecutive days, before dropping below flood stage on June 19th. The river crested here at 22.7 feet on May 2nd, eclipsing the previous record of 22.6 feet that occurred during the historic 1993 floods,” said Murphy.

U.S. corn acreage was cut by three million from 92.8 to 89.8 million acres, while expected yield was reduced from 176 to 166 bushels per acre.  That results in a  U.S. corn production change from 15.03 to 13.68 billion bushels – or 9 percent

Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist Office of the Chief Economist Tweet

“Farther downstream, the Mississippi River at Burlington, IA remained at major flood stage or above for 62 consecutive days from March 16 to May 16, shattering the June-August 1993 mark of 41 days,” noted Murphy.  Impacts are being felt well downstream, south of where the Ohio River and Missouri River converge into the Mississippi. At Baton Rouge, LA, the gauge rose above flood stage on January 5th, and still remains in flood. “An astounding 166 consecutive days.  The previous record was 135 days during the great flood of 1927. The same has occurred at Vicksburg, MS. In fact, it was the Great 1927 Flood which resulted in federal flood controls being enacted in the Flood Control Act of 1928,” Murphy analyzed.  

The combination of river flooding and excessive rainfall has prevented farmers and producers from getting out into their fields, which has caused a major disruption in spring planting.  “The much lower yield than usual will likely end up being another $ one-billion plus, disaster,” Murphy expects.   For reference, the economic damages of the Great Midwest Flood of 1993 were estimated near $20 billion. The total cost of this event will not be known until the fall. There was also record setting flooding along the Arkansas River between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Little Rock, Arkansas during the last 10 days of May and first week of June,” he added.

“In a nutshell, much of northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas saw one-week rainfall totals that have a return frequency of once every 100 to once every 200 years. This water ran off into the Arkansas River and caused record flooding” he added.

Major Corn Producing Counties & Apr-June 2019 Precipitation (in)

Although it’s too early to measure the final impacts of this year’s rainy weather and delayed planting on U.S. corn, wheat, and soybeans, another meteorologist says there’s no mistaking the direction we’re headed.

“In the June World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, issued by my office (USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist), U.S. corn acreage was cut by three million from 92.8 to 89.8 million acres, while expected yield was reduced from 176 to 166 bushels per acre.  That results in a  U.S. corn production change from 15.03 to 13.68 billion bushels – or 9 percent, (and that’s pretty close to the dictionary definition of “decimated,” a one-tenth loss!)” said Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist Office of the Chief Economist; World Agricultural Outlook Board in Washington, D.C.

A new, survey-based acreage report will be issued by USDA”s National Agricultural Statistics Service on June 28.  Then, there will another WASDE issued in July, followed by the first survey-based U.S. corn estimates from USDA/NASS in August.  “As you can see, the pieces will slowly come together to reveal how much corn acreage, yield, and production will be lost.   And, of course, weather conditions from this point forward will also be important in determining the final outcome. (The WASDE has not yet reduced acreage, yield, or production for U.S. soybeans, since it is earlier in that crop’s growing season,)” Rippey noted.  The entire U.S. agricultural situation is incredibly complex this year, and goes far beyond the weather.

“In a typical wet spring, there will be a loss of corn acreage, but a possible gain in soybean acreage, as the latter crop can be planted later in the year—both in terms of having a shorter growing season and for crop insurance purposes. This year, however, commodity prices currently favor corn over soybeans,” said Rippey.  “In addition, there is great uncertainty in planting soybeans due to tariffs and trade-war issues. Therefore, it is incredibly difficult to determine this year’s final U.S. corn and soybean outcomes due to weather extremes and market unrest.”

It all started with an abnormally hard snow across Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa; a late season snow storm, then – all the snow melted quickly, and then heavy rain began occurring in April, May and early June.  Those two factors combined led to this major, anomalous flooding disaster. Even with…. mostly wetter and cooler-than-normal summer, (CPC released its July/August/September outlook June 20th,) just comparing this year’s onslaught of the tumultuous 2019 spring to the relatively quiet 2018 spring…shows that this year so far is the ‘wild card.’ “There really is not any comparing the two!  2019 was one of the more active springs (mid-April through end of May) in quite some time. 2018 was almost about as opposite as you can get, with 2018 being well below average both in terms of numbers and intensity of the tornadoes that we saw,” said Patrick Marsh, Ph.D., Warning Coordination Meteorologist; NOAA/NWS/NCEP Storm Prediction Center.

2019 Daily Tornado Count

Image courtesy of Victory Murphy, National Weather Service

“For example, comparing the intensity of tornadoes between 2018 and 2019, there were more EF3 or stronger tornadoes in the last two weeks of May 2019, than in all of 2018 combined,” said Marsh.  “This included two EF4 tornadoes (wind speed of:  166-200mph, while there were no EF4 tornadoes in 2018.)”

Comparing this year’s (preliminary) number of tornadoes of 935 through May 27 – there was less than half that amount; 418 in January-May 2018.  “As of today (June 20th) there have been 38 (weather-related) fatalities so far this year in the U.S.  Twenty-three of them occurred from the EF-4 tornado that struck Lee County in Alabama on March 3rd.  No other tornado has caused more than three fatalities this year,” said Murphy.

Influence of El Niño?

Regarding calling this an El Niño spring, Marsh says, that generally speaking, the influences of El Niño on thunderstorm and thunderstorm environments wanes dramatically as we enter into April and May.  “This largely has to do with the fact that the background climatology of spring is sufficiently supportive of thunderstorms in April and May – that any changes in the larger-scale pattern attributable to El Niño, is significantly less.”

That said, the latest summer outlook just issued Thursday, June 20th from the Climate Prediction Center revealed that El Niño is still hanging on this summer and forecast to linger into the end of 2019 (see What’s the Real Wildcard in the Summer Forecast).

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Amy G. Hadachek

Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm and cow-calf operation with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be contacted at: rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com