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Forum Editorial Board, Published September 24 2012

Editorial: Too dry? Too wet? Just wait

North Dakotans would welcome a two-day soaker – a couple of inches of fall rain over the farmlands, prairies and hills of this very dry state. The most recent national drought monitor map confirms the dry conditions, but stops short of saying the state is in drought. But dry it is, nearly everywhere in the state.

Among the phrases used to describe the hot, dry summer and early fall is “unusually dry.” But is it? The region’s long-term climate descriptor, especially west of the Red River Valley, is “semi-arid.” This year the “arid” half of the term has dominated weather that has been distinguished by blue-sky heat and low humidity. The result is parched crops, cracked ground and shrinking surface waters. But it’s not (yet) classified as drought.

The “semi” in the climate definition goes to the extreme variability of weather on the Northern Plains. From 1993 to 2010, the region experienced one of the wettest periods since records have been kept. During that time, lakes rose and rivers flooded. High water records were set from east to west, including in the typically very dry western counties of the state. Then the rains quit. For a little less than two years, precipitation has been below long-term averages. In some places, summer rainfall is more than six inches below the averages.

No one knows if the long wet period that began in 1993 is over simply because one summer has been very dry. The fact is just a few months of above normal snows and rainfall can make a quick and startling change in the landscape. Variability always characterizes the region’s weather and climate. So any extended outlooks should be taken only as outlooks, not forecasts.

If the five-day forecast is close to right, no significant rainfall is in sight. That’s a safe bet because the pattern all summer and into autumn has been warm, dry, an occasional light shower, and then a repeat. But be assured: Change can come quickly. A slight shift in the jet stream can alter the storm track. A system far out in the Pacific Ocean today can mean heavy rain or a snowstorm in a week. An Atlantic hurricane can roar inland from the Gulf of Mexico and its effects might be felt as far north as the Red River Valley.

Variability. Semi-arid. Fickle. Pick your weather poison. But it is never safe to assume that wet will stay wet or dry will stay dry.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.