Western Drought

LOS ANGELES -- Winter seemingly took forever to take hold across a large chunk of the United States this season due to true Arctic air holding back until the middle and latter part of January. However, once it arrived, it did so in a dramatic fashion, helping to set off blockbuster snowstorms across the Midwest and the Northeast as a train of storms slammed into California unleashing heavy rain and yards of mountain snow.

Despite Old Man Winter's fashionably late arrival, he made a no-holds-barred entrance. However, AccuWeather forecasters are warning in the company's annual spring forecast, that despite the recent storms, the Western U.S. will still be in the grips of severe drought.

The overall weather pattern across North America will be influenced by a phenomenon known as La Niña. This is a phase during which the water near the equator of the Pacific Ocean is cooler than normal, which, in turn, affects the atmosphere.

La Niña is projected to continue throughout the spring before weakening heading into early summer, according to AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok. The effects in the U.S. from La Niña “could create a volatile situation" with an active severe weather season anticipated and more snow chances predicted across the northern tier.

The positioning of the jet stream this April is forecast to be very similar to that of April 2011, but Pastelok explained that there are “just a few other factors that I think will hold things back.”

One of the factors is the drought over the Four Corners and into part of the High Plains, including eastern Colorado, western Kansas, western Nebraska and part of the Texas Panhandle.

These areas of dryness will inhibit some of the thunderstorm development and are one reason AccuWeather is predicting the focus of tornado activity to occur over an area farther east than the traditional Tornado Alley. Traditionally, Tornado Alley is a tornado-prone swath of the Plains stretching from central Texas to South Dakota.

Western U.S.

California has faced a barrage of storms during the second half of January, including a final powerhouse system that tapped into an atmospheric river of moisture and alleviated drought concerns for most of the state, but a much different story will unfold across the western U.S. as spring arrives.

Exceptional drought conditions were present in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report on Jan. 28. That's the worst level of drought on the drought intensity scale.

With minimal prospects of significant rain across the interior Southwest and Four Corners, long-term drought conditions will set the stage for early-spring conditions, and it could feel like the season will jump ahead straight into summer for some areas.

“There are a lot of possibilities for early heat waves in the Southwest,” Pastelok said.

Death Valley, California, one of the hottest places on Earth, has already hit 90 F this year on Jan. 16, the earliest 90-degree day on record. Similar records could fall elsewhere across the interior Southwest this spring.

Skiers and snowboarders will have to head to California if they want to hit the slopes later in the season as the warm, dry pattern may spell an early end to snow sports at the resorts across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

As most of the Southwest will bask in abnormal warmth and dry weather this spring, the fire hose of Pacific moisture will keep on targeting the Pacific Northwest into the northern Rockies throughout the duration of the season.

“I think [the storms] come back in, and it keeps going through April at full blast,” Pastelok said about the upcoming weather pattern for the Northwest. Even as the calendar flips to May, “I still don’t think the unsettled pattern will end. I just think that it will just ease back considerably.”

Areas along the Interstate 5 corridor from Medford, Oregon, through Seattle will face a high risk of flooding due to the parade of spring storms, which could end up being a benefit later in 2021. “Remember, these places dried out pretty good [last spring], then we ended up having a really bad fire season in parts of Oregon,” Pastelok recalled. “This year is a different setup.”

As the spring transpires, residents farther inland, especially those who live at a higher elevation, may begin to wonder if spring will ever arrive, or if 2021 will be the year of a never-ending winter.

“I can still see some snow falling in parts of the northern Rockies and the higher elevations and the interior Northwest all the way into early June,” Pastelok said.


Brian Lada is an AccuWeather meteorologist and staff writer.