La Niña is expected to prolong the South’s drought, but Arkansas, northern Louisiana and northeastern Texas may see some improvement before the end of April, according to the National Weather Service.

According to the drought map released Jan. 27, parts of Arkansas roughly south and southwest of a line drawn from Texarkana to Hope to El Dorado are shown as extreme drought, as are areas east of U.S. 63 in northeastern Arkansas. Most of the state is listed as being in severe drought, with areas northwest of a line approximately from Mammoth Spring to Mena being shown as either abnormally dry or in a moderate drought.

The good news is that the seasonal outlook through April 20 shows some improvement for all by the extreme northwest corner of the state.

However, there’s an undercurrent of worry for farmers and foresters.

“Several of our crop farmers have expressed concern about how quickly we could get into a severe drought situation if this pattern continues into spring,” said Randy Chlapecka, Jackson County Extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “While we could probably expect enough rain to give us adequate moisture for germination and emergence, when those plants start growing and developing, their moisture requirements would quickly deplete what soil moisture was out there.”

Despite Tuesday’s precipitation, “one rain won’t be enough to eliminate our concerns,” Chlapecka said. “We’ll still be well below normal since mid-July.”

The weather has been tough on the state’s trees, as the 2009 moisture surplus was depleted by late summer 2010.

“We’ve seen a lot of dead trees this past fall and winter, after our hot, dry 2010,” said Tamara Walkingstick, associate director-Arkansas Forestry Resources Center for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “We’ll see even more trees die if we go into the spring with inadequate moisture, which sets up another issue in potential wildfires.”

775,000 acres burned

According to the National Weather Service, more than 42,000 fires burned more than 775,000 acres throughout the southern tier states during 2010.The Arkansas Forestry Commission reported 2,222 wildland fires in 2010 that burned 35,197 acres.

On Feb. 1, a commission map showed wildfire danger to be low everywhere but Ashley, Bradley, Cleveland, Calhoun, Chicot, Desha, Drew, Jefferson and Lincoln counties, where the danger is rated at moderate. Four counties had burn bans – Boone, Carroll, Polk and Searcy.

One of the major aspects of the emergence of La Niña was a very busy Atlantic hurricane season, which spawned 19 tropical storms, making it the third-most active on record. Despite the large number of storms, only Hurricane Alex and Tropical Storm Hermine produced any appreciable rainfall in the southern United States. Those storms only affected Texas; no significant rainfall from an organized tropical system fell along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

La Niña has developed 13 times since 1950, and the current La Niña ranks as the sixth-strongest. The question climate experts are asking now is whether it will fade with the approach of summer or continue into next year.

“Of the five stronger La Niñas that occurred, four resulted in multi-year events,” said Victor Murphy, climate program manager for NOAA’s National Weather Service southern region. “If this La Niña persists until next winter, the threat of drought conditions in the south extending into next year will be heightened.”

For more information about crop production, water conservation or forest management, contact your county Extension office or visit www.uaex.edu.