Originally created 11/27/02

Forecasts say El Nino will bring wet winter



Weather officials are confident about one prediction for Augusta this winter: The almighty El Nino, they say, will prevail over the area's persistent drought.

"As far as precipitation goes, we're expecting above-normal chances," said Mike Cammarata, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in West Columbia, S.C. "We know this from well-known patterns of El Nino."

"Wonderful!" Jenny Addie of Green Thumb West Nursery and Garden Center in Augusta exclaimed after hearing the news. "We live by the rain."

Typically, an El Nino year brings above-normal temperatures and more storms to the Southern United States, but what form this winter's added El Nino precipitation will take is something forecasters aren't so sure of.

"There is a chance (the Augusta area) could have snow this year," Mr. Cammarata said. "But there is a much greater chance that it won't snow."

Mrs. Addie said additional rain or snow would be just what's needed in Augusta.

"Snow can be great," she said. "It gets further and deeper into the soil as it slowly melts. The problems come when we have warm temperatures and then have a sudden freeze. We should be in great shape, provided we don't go quickly from hot to cold."

She said some of the Augusta area's oldest magnolias and long-needle pines have been in bad shape because of the area's drought, which is considered to be moderate. But above-average rain this month and a promise for more precipitation this winter has her hopeful.

"What we've noticed around town over these years of drought is the stress of these older trees," she said. "But we are noticing that they have definitely improved. If it keeps on going, that will help the older trees."

Mr. Cammarata said that during the previous El Nino year - 1997 - there were no significant snow storms in Augusta because higher temperatures from El Nino often make snow difficult. During the past 10 years, he said, major snows in excess of 4 inches in the area occurred only in January 2000 and January 2002.

But this winter, the National Weather Service's forecast is for more precipitation with relatively normal temperatures.

"You're really talking about one or two degrees in any direction that could mean the difference between snow or rain," Mr. Cammarata said. "We could have 20 or 30 rain events this winter, but there's no way of knowing if they'll bring all rain or maybe some snow."

According to The Old Farmer's 2003 Almanac, the Southeast is in line for above-average snowfall this winter. In particular, the almanac states that the Piedmont and Southeast Coastal region, which encompasses Augusta, could have snow or ice in early December, near New Year's Eve and in early February.

Regardless, the National Drought Mitigation Center's most recent U.S. Drought Monitor, released Nov. 19, states that above-average precipitation should continue through January.

"If that holds, that would improve the drought conditions," Mr. Cammarata said.

Already, those conditions seem to be improving.

"We've been irrigating very little this fall, and we've not lost any shrubbery, which is very unusual," said Max Brown, the grounds supervisor for Augusta State University. "We're just hoping for the best this winter."

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.