Spring Outlook: Stubborn Cold Hangs in Midwest, Elevated Flood Threat

By Jon Erdman
Published: March 20, 2014

Those shivering through one of the coldest winters since at least the late 1970s may have to shiver a bit more this spring.

(MORE: Science Behind the Vernal Equinox)

April - June temperature outlook

April through June 2014 temperature outlook. Areas not shaded in the lower 48 states indicate equal chances of warmer or colder-than-average temperatures in the three-month period. (NOAA)

The northern tier of states from the eastern Great Lakes to Montana are expected to have a colder-than-average April - June, according to a spring outlook released Thursday by NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

The month of April alone is expected to feature below-average temperatures from the Northeast Seaboard to the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, northern Plains and northern Rockies.

On the other end of the spectrum, generally warmer-than-average conditions are expected in April - June from the West Coast and Desert Southwest, spreading into the rest of the nation's southern tier from Texas and Oklahoma to Florida and parts of the Carolinas.

In short, the stubborn pattern in place much of the winter is expected to persist into spring, namely, a northward bulge in the polar jet stream into Alaska and northwest Canada, and a corresponding southward dip in the jet stream over the central and eastern U.S., ushering in persistent bouts of cold air to the Midwest and parts of the East.

This persistent cold air leaves the door open for more significant winter storms into the spring months affecting the northern tier of states.

That's nothing out of the ordinary in the nation's northern tier, but given the potential for cold air to continue to dominate into at least early spring, there's a potential for these storms to go a little deeper into the spring or produce heavier snow, or ice.

In spring 2013, for example, we had four named winter storms during the month of April. Winter Storm Walda produced freezing rain as far south as northwest Texas on April 10, and a full-fledged ice storm in Sioux Falls, S.D.  

Then, in early May, Winter Storm Achilles dumped historic May snow in parts of the Upper Midwest, and an unprecedented May snow in Arkansas.

(MORE: 5 Extreme Winter Storms in Spring)

Spring Flood Threat?


NOAA Spring Flood Risk

NOAA Spring Flood Risk

NOAA Spring Flood Risk

NOAA Spring Flood Risk

Snow Depth as of March 20

Snow Depth as of March 20

Snow Depth as of March 20

Snow Depth as of March 20

An impressive snowpack, a deep layer of frozen ground, and the potential for ice jams is triggering an elevated spring flood risk in parts of the Midwest and northern Plains.

NOAA says a moderate risk of spring flooding exists in parts of the southern Great Lakes, mid-Mississippi Valley, Black Hills of South Dakota, and the Red River Valley of the North in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. 

The generally cold spring expected in the northern tier of states, minus New England, would allow a slow, controlled snow melt in these areas.

On the other hand, continued significant ice cover on rivers and streams may contribute to more ice jams, and quick-fuse flash flooding.

Also, keep in mind within the three-month forecast, there could be short-lived, sharp warm spells which could melt snow more quickly, leading to more serious flooding in the short term. Those short-lived events cannot be forecast precisely in any long-term outlook.

There appears to be no clear signal of above or below-average precipitation in much of the snow-covered regions from the Rockies to New England.

With any spring flood outlook, the wild card is heavy spring rainfall, which can not only rapidly melt any lingering snow cover, but also add to rivers and streams already running high from runoff.

Any short-term, high-precipitation-producing frontal systems cannot be predicted in a seasonal outlook. 

One other area of concern this season will be the Front Range of Colorado, ravaged by a destructive flood in September 2013. 

(MORE: Colorado Spring Flood Threat)

As of March 20, the water content of the northern Colorado snowpack ranges from 26-41 percent above average for late March. Furthermore, on average, May is the wettest month in Denver, featuring thunderstorms moving off the High Country, sometimes with locally heavy rainfall.

Snowpack is also impressive in the northern Rockies, up to 67 percent above late-March averages in parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

As we've already seen in March, a pronounced warm-up or additional heavy snow or rain could unleash more river flooding in these areas.

With much of the typical "wet season" now complete, little drought relief is expected for parched locations of California, the Desert Southwest, and southern High Plains in the spring. 

However, NOAA is forecasting drought improvement in parts of the Northwest (Washington, southeast Idaho, northern and coastal Oregon), Plains states (from eastern Texas to Nebraska) and Mississippi Valley (Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin). 

MORE: Colorado Flooding Aerials Sep. 2013

Victims of last week's devastating floods retrieve belongings outside a home near the East Platte River east of Greeley, Colo., Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. The area's broad agricultural flatlands were especially hard hit by the high water. (AP Photo/John Wark)

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