Q&A: Farmers, shippers wary of winter’s fallout

ST. LOUIS – While winter has been unforgiving to most of the Midwest, the next several months will dictate the season’s impact on all-important sectors, such as shipping and farming.

Fast-melting snow in the northern Midwest likely won’t be able to soak into the frozen ground, meaning excess water would feed into tributaries and ultimately the Mississippi River, raising water levels and affecting barge traffic. Meanwhile, more snow on key farming states could delay the planting of corn, mirroring last year’s late start.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, spoke to The Associated Press about how the rest of the winter could impact agriculture and river shipping. Here are edited excerpts of the interview:

Q: Can you describe the severity of the winter in terms of the snow accumulations in the Midwest so far?

A: The further east you go, they have had more snow, more moisture. And the further west you go, as you get into central Iowa into eastern and central Nebraska, there hasn’t been a lot of snow. This time of year ... we look at how deep that frost layer does go into the soils, because realistically that is the frozen moisture in the ground that we’re going to be looking at come spring.

With a lot of the snow that sits atop that, if we get these warm-ups during the winter, very little of that water will infiltrate into the ground because of the frost, so you do get more runoff this time of year.

Q: For states that are no stranger to brutal winters and abundant snowfall, is the Corn Belt seeing above-average snowfall?

A: Not really. I think the places in the central to western areas of the region have below-normal snowfall where others eastward have had what I consider typical. The further east you go, it has been colder and wetter. But I just don’t think we’ve had a winter like this for a while, with the cold especially.

It’s way too early to say that we’re going to end up below normal for the winter as far as snow. There’s still a lot of time. Even for some places that are kind of lagging for snow and moisture this winter, from what we saw last year it can change in a hurry. When melt-off does come it could be messy.

Q: What are the implications for spring in terms of melt-off and inland rivers?

A: I think it’s a little too early. Even with the good fall rains and the recharge of the soil, it went really well into the top 18 inches or so of the soil — what I call the topsoil layer. That deeper soil layer didn’t see as much of that moisture.

That being said, with the snowfall that we’ve had this winter and as we go into spring melt, there is room for more of that moisture to go into the soil profile. If we end up getting some of those wet, heavy snows toward the end of the snow season again, and we warm up right away ... that’s going to be more cause for flood potential than if we see a slow, gradual melt-off and slower warm-up.

The conditions we see in the end of March and the first part of April are really going to dictate flood potential.

Q: Along those lines, will the climate this spring dictate how quickly farmers can get back in their fields?

A: Yeah. Last spring, we were cold and we stayed cold. Most producers were several weeks behind in getting their crops in the fields and even those who got in early had some issues because it just didn’t warm up until mid-May. As much as you like to plan and prepare, the one thing we can’t control is the weather, and that’s always the curveball.

Q: We’ve dealt routinely in recent years with questions about river levels. What’s your gut telling you about them this season?

A: In 2012, we were at the very low end of the spectrum, and 2011 we were at the very high end with a lot of flooding. Then last year we still had some reduced flows and levels, but they seemed to rebound fairly quickly. To see that quick rebound is telling me that ... we’re in way better shape than we were in 2012.

We still have ample opportunity to accumulate moisture through the winter. How quickly we warm up in the spring is going to ... dictate how much stress is put on those rivers with the water that they can handle.