El Niño will return and likely will bring a little more rainfall than usual to the Southwest. But first, the region likely will experience from one year to 18 months of continued dry conditions, says Mark Fox, warning and coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Fox spoke at the Ag Technology Conference in Commerce, TX, in early December and said that, although “forecasting weather is not the easiest thing to do, it’s not the hardest, either. It requires good observation, good models and common sense.”

All those factors point to continuation of La Niña conditions at least into spring and summer, he said.

“Spring and summer likely will be dryer and hotter than normal. But we don’t expect next summer to be as hot as it was in 2011.”

Suggestions that drought conditions could persist into 2020 may be overblown, he said. “We don’t have data to support that, but the climate for the next one to 1.5 years will be dry. Most models indicate that, by the end of 2012, El Niño will take over and conditions will be wetter in 2013 and 2014.”

Fox said that under the best of conditions Texas weather is “highly variable.” He pointed to last winter as an example. Most audience members responded that the winter of 2011 was colder than usual. In fact, last winter temperatures averaged about three degrees higher than normal. Most people recall the extremely cold week in early January, however, when temperatures plunged and snow and sleet covered the area.

“We had one really bad week, but we did not get a lot of winter rain,” Fox said. “There is no such thing as a normal winter. We will see wild swings one way or the other.”

The outlook last winter was for “way-above-average temperatures. We had about normal average temperatures.”

Late November and December rainfall may bring false hope to farmers and ranchers, he added. Northeast Texas received as much as 5” of rain during that period, but Fox said the area needs a lot more and heavier rains to refill lakes, streams and stock tanks.

Computer models suggest a second straight year of La Niña.

“Most models say it will be at least next year before we get out of this pattern. In Texas, models show a 40% chance of higher-than-normal temperatures and 50% or higher chances of less rainfall. I hope we’re wrong about that.”

But he also noted that the El Niño, La Niña phenomenon has been observed for hundreds of years and it “affects weather cycles about every one to two years.”