Geese flying north, robins, baseball and sunshine are just a few signs of spring. It’s a season of the year people really look forward to—especially if the winter has been long and cold.
There aren’t many people sad to see winter go; most of us in the Northern Hemisphere look forward to the day and time the sun crosses the equator on its journey north—that’s the Vernal Equinox, the beginning of spring. It happened at 6:02 a.m. Central time Wednesday. It just didn’t feel like spring in these parts.
"We’ve got a pretty good ridge over the Rockies right now, and the flow coming out of that from the north-northwest is bringing that cool—some say cold—Canadian air right on down, pretty much into Kansas and even Oklahoma," Mike Gillispie with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls says.
Gillispie is a hydrologist by profession; he studies precipitation and water and their effects on a given area. There wasn’t a lot of water in South Dakota over last year between late spring and last summer.
“Most areas were between five and 15 inches below normal last year," Gillispie says. " When you’re looking at the long term of things, you know, hopefully we’re not going to see 15 inches of precipitation this year. That would create its own set of problems we wouldn’t want to deal with either.”
Gillispie says his forecast models are calling for things to get at least a little better this spring.
“Yeah, I think we’ll see some improvement. We’re not gonna get all the way out of the D-4 classification or even the D-3 classification all the way to nothing this spring or summer most likely. But we will see a one or possibly two-category improvement. That would be my guess right now between the end of May or the middle of June," Gillispie says. "A lot of that has to do with the fact we’re getting into a wetter period, and most of the longer-range outlooks right now call for normal precipitation, the way we’re looking at things, for the spring.”
According to Gillispie, dry soil can bounce back and be as good as it ever was — if there’s enough moisture falling on it.
“As long as we keep getting normal precipitation, some of that is gonna soak in there. It’s not gonna get back to normal until we see above-normal precipitation or get into another winter where, even a—if we get to a winter where we see normal snowfall and normal snowpack next winter. That could set us up for getting back to normal for the spring of 2014," Gillispie says.
Gillispie says, right now, the weekend looks to provide a fair chance of snow as a system forms in the west. He says that will bring temperatures up a bit and some snow to parts of the region for Thursday night and a few days beyond.
This spring brings changes to the way weather officials explain and deliver warnings during severe weather.
"For people hearing the warning over radio or weather radio, but for people reading the bulletins, especially on the internet, they’re going to see that it’s a lot easier to find what kind of hail we’re expecting or have reports of," meteorologist Susan Sanders with the National Weather Service out of Rapid City says.
Previous warnings offered a description of storms, but they lacked information about the impact systems like thunderstorms can have. The point of the new format, Sanders says, is to describe the severity of storms as accurately as possible. She says weather experts know the kinds of damage different storm elements cause.
"So obviously if we have quarter-sized hail, it could do some damage to roofs and windows, especially if it’s coming with some strong wind gusts, too," Sanders says. "But we know baseball sized hail or larger hail can do a lot more damage."
The new impact statements aren’t just for thunderstorms. Sanders says weather officials have opportunities to gauge the level of danger tornados present. Instead of simply warning people a twister exists, the National Weather service examines its assets and likely path.
"So for a small tornado that looks pretty weak and the environment doesn’t really support a lot of strengthening of that storm, then we’ll have some light damage indicators in the warning itself," Sanders says. "But if we have reports of a huge tornado, the kind that hit Manchester or Bowdle a couple of years ago, and it’s heading toward a town, we’re going to emphasize that there could be more damage."
People can also tell whether the tornado warning is based on radar or if spotters see it.
"We really want people to realize that this storm is dangerous, and we’re giving them information about what’s developing with this storm. A lot of our warning are based on Doppler radar; people don’t realize what’s actually happened since that first initial warning’s been issued. And that will help them make the right choice to take shelter because we’ve got a tornado on the ground," Sanders says.
South Dakota is one of several states in the region trying the new system. Kansas implemented the testing last year, but the state didn’t get enough severe weather for experts to examine its effectiveness.
The test project changes only warnings for tornados and thunderstorms. That means severe thunderstorm or tornado watches and flash flood warnings stay the same. Even if South Dakota sees more snow despite officially welcoming spring, the warning system won’t change for winter weather, either.