Warmer Days: Your Planting Season Forecast

Read Time: 3 minutes
March 8, 2024
Dr. Zach Hansen
Weather Science Team Manager at Climate

Planting season is upon us, and so is the unpredictable weather characteristic of this time of year. The decisions you make now could have lasting effects for the rest of the year. So what’s the best way to approach the season ahead? Let’s take a look at what we can expect not just for planting season, but the year beyond—and some tips for how you can be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

El Niño and a Slow-Spinning Top

From a weather impact perspective, this El Niño has been slightly abnormal. Though it began last summer, El Niño ramped up more slowly than is typical, with impacts only being felt towards the end of autumn. That being said, for the past few months, the US has been experiencing fairly classic El Niño impacts, with warmer temperatures in the northern half of the US, while the southern half has been comparatively cool and wet. In general, the fall and winter seasons were overall warmer than what is typical, with the exception of a few extremely cold weeks in January.

And El Niño isn’t entirely to blame for the drastic differences we’ve experienced—these high amplitude variations in temperature are consistent with what we believe will happen in a warming climate. Think of weather across the planet as a top spinning; the faster it spins, the more stable it is, and the slower it spins, the more “wavy,” or unstable. With the warming patterns we’ve experienced, we’re slowing our top, and so we have seen enhanced waviness. As a result, extremes get more extreme. This is due to the impact of something called the geostrophic wind. This wind controls how ridges and troughs, or areas of high and low pressure, flow across the planet. To get a strong geostrophic wind, you need a strong temperature gradient. In instances of a warming climate, where the poles are warming more than the equator, a weaker temperature gradient is created, which slows the geostrophic wind.

The faster the spin, the more stable the weather.

The good news? El Niño likely isn’t here to stay—we will almost certainly be exiting El Niño by the end of spring, around the end of April. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as El Niños are often shorter lived than La Niñas. We will likely enter into La Niña by sometime this fall.

A Divided Planting Season Outlook

So what can we expect for this planting season? Last year, our prediction that 2023 would be the warmest year on record came true, and we continue to see those warming effects. We have experienced and will likely continue to experience unusual warmth, even for El Niño. While the continued warmth is almost a guarantee for the majority of the US, the dryness that typically accompanies a strong El Niño is a bit more difficult to confirm. As is typical for El Niño, we will likely see a wetter, stronger spring storm season for the southern US, due to the increase in oceanic warmth and the push of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico (check out last year’s growing forecast if you need a refresher on the anatomy of a thunderstorm). Conditions for the upper US are trickier to predict. We can be fairly confident it will be warmer than usual, however the moisture sourcing is more difficult to pinpoint. If we continue to experience a predictable El Niño, these regions likely will not see as many storms as the South and Southeast.

The slower the spin, the less stable the weather.

The Bigger Picture

It may seem impossible to plan for the season with so many uncertainties floating around. The predicted conditions in the southern US may allow for an earlier planting season, but when it comes to finding the best time to plant, my advice is to start with a longer-term forecast, then narrow it down. The NOAA Monthly Outlook is a great place to start, to get a general sense of what conditions you can expect over the next couple of weeks. From there, you can narrow it down to your 8-14 day outlooks to get a better idea of whether you can expect rain in the next week or two. These forecasts are intended to give you an idea of whether you can expect rain at all during that time frame, rather than exact days and times it will rain, so the best days for planting may vary depending on your local weather forecast.

The map on the left is an example of what you might see depicting the general conditions over the next month, while the map on the right gives you a better idea of what conditions to expect within the next week or two.

In light of all the uncertainty surrounding this planting season’s outlook, it will be crucial to keep an eye on forecasts to work around the rain. Remember that while there are certain elements that are impossible to predict perfectly, it’s important to look at the weather as a bigger story, and not as a series of isolated events. Paying attention to patterns and using long-term predictions in conjunction with the shorter-term forecasts is the best way to be prepared for what the season has in store.

About the Author

Dr. Zach Hansen is the Weather Science Team Manager at Climate. He has spent four years at Climate, in a variety of roles all centered on weather. In his current role, he and his team work to ensure that weather data is used effectively in predictive models that help growers make a variety of decisions. Zach received his undergraduate degree in Atmospheric Science from the University of Utah, and his PhD in Atmospheric Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to joining Climate, Zach worked as a research scientist at Nanjing University in China, where he examined the life cycles and characteristics of thunderstorms on a variety of scales.