Squirrels predict harsh winter

Developing El Nino may mean mild winter for Kansas

Staff writer

If squirrels have the ability to forecast the weather based on the number of nuts currently being gathered and buried, one might surmise Marion County is in for a harsh winter.

Anyone with trees in their yard more than likely has seen the furry critters zipping here and there within the last couple weeks gathering nuts at a frenzied pace.

But frenzied nut-gathering activity has no real bearing on weather predictions, said climatologist Mary Knapp. She heads the Kansas Weather Data Library housed with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

"If squirrels are burying lots of nuts — and they are — that's a sign we had a good nut crop this year," Knapp said.

After the unusually cool, damp summer many Kansans are wondering whether that means we'll have an unusually early, cold, or snowy winter.

"Even modern weather forecasting can't predict that far in the future," Knapp said. "But there's a good chance the winter may be milder than normal. There's an El Nino developing in the Pacific. That equals a warmer winter."

An El Nino is a mass of unseasonably warm water flowing from west to east in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Since ocean and wind currents have a profound effect on climate, an El Nino — so named because its affects are usually first seen around Christmas time — can bring a dramatic change in world weather.

"But milder winters usually mean more moisture," Knapp added.

Knapp said the state has "equal chances for normal and above average temperatures."

Winter moisture in Kansas and the central part of the country is determined by weather systems in the Gulf of Mexico, Knapp said.

"Our storms usually originate from the Four Corners region," she said. "Our winters are milder and wetter in the southern half of the state than in the northern half."

Early freeze?

"Whenever you start getting below 50 degrees people start wondering when the freeze is coming," Knapp said.

Knapp said that although some parts of Nebraska already have seen 30 degrees in August and parts of Kansas set record lows this year, the central portion of Kansas probably is still "aways" from the first freeze.

"Historically, the first freeze will be in northwest Kansas," the climatologist said.

In recent decades, the average first-freeze date in northwest Kansas has been Oct. 4 although dates range from an average Sept. 29 in Atwood to Oct. 8 in Norton.

The average first freeze date in central Kansas is Oct. 15, according to data provided by Knapp's office. South central Kansas' usual freeze date is Oct. 20.

Even though the summer was cool and nights — for the most part — have been chilly, Knapp said there's really nothing to indicate an early freeze.

"The guys at the Dodge City weather station did a study and found that a cooler than normal summer may mean a later start to winter," she said.

As for other weather predictions, Knapp said September has been reminiscent of late August with sunny and warm temperatures.

"In August those temperatures were five, six, or seven degrees cooler than normal," Knapp noted. "But in September those same temperatures are warmer than normal. Not really hot — but warmer than usual."

As for other predictions — which Knapp said are only "slightly better than a coin toss" — she indicated Autumn which begins today (Wednesday) through December has an "equal chance of slightly above normal rainfall."

"The chance is more likely in the southern regions of the state," she said.

For Winter — the period from December through February — it's anybody's guess.

"Kansas is right on the borderline between the northern plains and the southern United States," Knapp explained. "The northern plains are expected to be dryer than normal. The southern area may be wetter than normal."

But the main determining factor in Kansas' weather would be the presence or non-presence of the El Nino, Knapp said.

"The question is 'will it intensify or fade away'?" she said.

For those of us who remember winters where snow remained on the ground in central Kansas from Thanksgiving to March, Knapp said it's possible those days could return.

"Snowfall is a cycle or climate variability rather than a climate shift," she explained. "There was a mild winter pattern similar to what we've seen recently back in the 1950s."

What Kansans don't need is a repeat of the cold, wet winter of 1992-93, she said.

"It started snowing on Halloween," Knapp recalled. "That year Hays had snow lingering on the ground continuously from Halloween through April."