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Climate Web site uses history to help farmers plan

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Mother Nature appears to be cutting Georgia farmers some slack so far this year. And a new, three-state Web site can help them prepare for whatever the weather offers.

"Now's the time to prepare for rough weather," said Joel Paz, an Extension agrometeorologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "We're having a normal-weather year this year. When you're experiencing an El Niño, you have to have your contingency plans ready."

Paz is on a multi-university team of researchers who have developed the Web resource to help farmers stay ahead of the weather. The site can help them prepare for many weather conditions driven by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon.

Forecasts

The Southeast Climate Consortium issues quarterly forecasts to help farmers in Alabama, Florida and Georgia manage their crops. The forecasts are on-line at www.agclimate.org.

The SECC Web site uses data collected from university resources and the National Climate Data Center. It's based on more than 50 years of weather data. And it provides monthly rainfall and temperature forecasts for Alabama, Florida and Georgia counties.

It offers advice, too, for neutral, El Niño and La Niña ENSO phases. Florida State University's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies produces the SECC climate forecasts.

At the Tallahassee center, researchers monitor surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator to predict potential weather effects in the southeastern United States.

Periodic warming or cooling of those ocean surfaces, known as El Niño or La Niña, can affect U.S. weather patterns. El Niños bring increased winter rainfall. La Niñas have the opposite effect.

Neutral phase

Pacific Ocean surface temperatures are near normal now, or in a neutral phase.

Farmers make many business decisions based on unknown weather conditions, Paz said. They decide whether to buy crop insurance or grow a particular crop.

The AgClimate Web site allows them to select their county, soil type, irrigation method and past yields. The site creates a personalized prediction of the farmer's yields based on his fields, the climate forecast and planting dates.

The site has data for peanuts, potatoes and tomatoes. The team plans to add cotton and other Southeastern vegetable crops soon.

The site covers cold weather factors, too. Farmers who grow peaches, blueberries, strawberries and other fruits will benefit from the chilling-hours data.

"There's a big difference between climate data and weather data," Paz said. "Weather information is used day-to-day. Climate information affects farmers' future decisions, including variety selection and management regimens."

More than farmers

The Web site was designed for farmers. But Paz says many other groups will find the climate information useful.

"We're starting to target the information to government agencies like the emergency management agencies," he said. "And we've found that water-resource managers also find the data quite useful."

The Web site data predicts the likelihood of wildfires, too. It forecasts little chance of wildfires this summer, due to recent heavy rains, the likelihood of a wet summer and the end of the Southeast's traditional wildfire season, which runs from January through early June.

The SECC's fall outlook, due in early September, will indicate whether the neutral phase is continuing, Paz said.

As with most weather and climate projects, there's always a margin of error.

"We look at probabilities based on history," he said. "Our Web site is accurate. But you've always got to give yourself some wiggle room."

SECC member universities, besides UGA, are Auburn, Alabama-Huntsville, Florida, Florida State and Miami.

The SECC is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global Programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service and the USDA's Risk Management Agency.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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