Nebraska's 2017 Weather and Climate in Review

Jan. 3, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

Clouds and sun over a field with a dusting of snow on it. A wire fence is the foreground and a road is off to the side.
A Nebraska farm field with a dusting of snow. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska is known for its wild weather. After a warm fall and a frigid holiday season, we take a look back at weather trends in 2017 in today’s NET News Signature Story.

Did you only recently dig out your heavy winter coats? It was an unseasonably warm fall in Nebraska. Thanksgiving weekend matched or set new temperature records across the state with highs in the 70s and low 80s. Then, the holidays brought in a wave of frigid temperatures.

As a whole, the main takeaways for weather this year were “warmth and wetness overall,” according to Nebraska State Climatologist Martha Shulski. She said that warmth is a continuing trend.

“If you look over the last 30 years or last 100 years, or even longer, we see this variability up and down but overall our temps are trending upward,” Shulski said.

From January through December, the state demonstrated that variability nearly month to month. Remember those warm days back in February? It was actually ninth warmest on record for the whole state of Nebraska, so warm that some farmers got out to spread fertilizer. But then a snowstorm in the northern half of the state broke the record for the highest one day snowfall in Alliance, when 17.3 inches fell on February 24th. March was the 11th warmest on record for the state, but that changed again towards the end of April and May.

“If you remember we had a pretty significant snowstorm, particularly in the central part of the state, that dumped a few inches of snow on top of corn that was already a few inches tall,” said Tyler Williams, an extension educator who works with farmers on climate and weather impacts. He said wet soils in late spring delayed some farmers getting out into their fields.

Things switched again in June--the second driest on record in Nebraska--and July, with dry, warm weather that led to some drought conditions across the state.

“By the end of the month of July there were a number of corn fields, especially in the northeast part of the state that were going to get harvested for silage just because the dryness basically was going to take its toll on it,” Williams said. “But then August, Nebraska does what it does best and it flipped again.”

August was cool, September and October warm and rainy. Williams said overall growing conditions were good for corn, but the temperature and precipitation flip-flops caused some to rot on the stalk. That made the crop vulnerable to intense October windstorms, which ruined many acres. Some places had as much as 60 to 70 bushels of corn on the ground from the ears breaking off the stalks, Williams said. “They're very hard to pick up so most of that was just a loss.”

Overall, Williams said 2017 followed climate and weather trends of the last few years:

“Warm falls, wet Aprils, generally our summertime period has been sort of sporadic, but we've seen a pretty strong uptick in our minimum temps during the summer, so it's just not getting quite as cool at night,” Williams said.

State climatologist Martha Shulski said this year’s ups and downs in Nebraska aren’t unusual.

“Variability rules here. That's kind of the king. And so we cycle up in down in our temperatures and our precipitation,” Shulski said, adding that it can be tough to generalize weather patterns across the entire state, especially given our location in the middle of the high plains, in the center of the continent.

“In Nebraska I kind of call it the climate crossroads. So we're at this intersection of colder to our north, warmer to our south. It's wetter to our east, drier to our west. And depending on storm track and what kind of weather patterns we get and position of the jet stream, that can really make a big difference depending on where you are in the state,” Shulski said.

But there are some overarching trends, like overall warmer temperatures. UNL Agricultural Climatologist Steve Hu said precipitation in Nebraska alternates between wetter and drier periods about every decade or so, based on data collected since 1895.

“We’re in transition period now, from a relatively wet phase of this 20 year cycle to a relatively dry phase of this cycle,” Hu said. “The transition actually took place around 2015.”

Hu said that doesn’t mean a given year can’t buck the trend, like the drought year of 2012, which fell within a wetter cycle. But in general, for the next 5 to 6 years we can expect dry conditions during the growing season and the year as a whole.

So what can we expect for the next few months? We’re in a La Nina year, which typically means cooler and wetter to the north and warmer and drier to the south. But Shulski said Nebraska sits right on the dividing line, and it’s a weak La Nina year, which makes climate predictions difficult. Northern Nebraska might get a bit cooler and wetter, but as for the rest of the state:

“We don't have enough confidence in the models to say either way. But expect anything,” Shulski said.

That’s good advice for Nebraska weather, no matter the season.