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Climate Prediction Center


December 2014 - February 2015


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Latest Seasonal Assessment - East of the Mississippi River, drought remains confined to a few relatively small areas in the Southeast and the Northeast, and is essentially non-existent elsewhere. Farther west, an area of drought developed in the northern Plains, but once again, the primary area of drought in the country stretches from the southern half of the Plains westward through most of the southern Rockies, desert Southwest, Intermountain West, and West Coast States. In the southern Plains, changes were patchy this past month, but more improvement than deterioration was observed. There was little change across the Intermountain West and the West Coast, save for some reductions in northern parts of this region and in northwestern California. However, despite these improvements, California remains in the grip of a serious and protracted drought. Over 99.5% of the state is experiencing at least moderate drought, and exceptional drought (the most severe classification; level D4 on the Drought Monitor) covers about 55% of the state. Finally, small areas of drought persisted on Maui and Molokai in Hawaii.

The drought outlook valid from November 20, 2014 through February 28, 2015 is based primarily on initial conditions, the December and December - February precipitation outlooks, El Niño precipitation composites (a weak to moderate episode is expected this winter), and climatology. In California, the seasonal increase in precipitation, a tilt of the odds toward above-normal precipitation in the December outlook, and enhanced chances for a wetter-than-normal winter across the southern half of the state should bring improvement to many areas, but it must be emphasized that improvement is not elimination, and it is expected that most of the state will still be in drought to some degree at the end of the winter, with significant areas still in severe drought or worse despite improvements. Elsewhere, odds favor drought improvement where it exists across the southern and eastern parts of the country and in southwestern Oregon. In contrast, drought is expected to persist or possibly worsen in the Great Basin and northern Intermountain West and the upper southern Plains from most of the Texas Panhandle and the western half of Oklahoma northward. Drought is also expected to persist in the small northern Plains area, and on Maui and Molokai in Hawaii.

Deficient precipitation for at least the past 2 or 3 months, plus enhanced chances for subnormal winter precipitation, prompted a forecast of drought expansion in part of the northern Intermountain West and a portion of southeastern Michigan. In Hawaii, there are substantially increased chances for a drier than normal winter - typically one of the wettest times of year - and thus there is a strong probability that drought will expand to cover much, if not all, of the state.

Discussion for the Seasonal Drought Outlook

Tools used in the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook (SDO) included the official Climate Prediction Center (CPC) temperature and precipitation outlooks for December 2014 and December 2014 - February 2015, various short- and medium-range forecasts and models such as the forecast 5-day and 7-day precipitation totals from the Weather Prediction Center (WPC), the 6-10 day and 8-14 day CPC forecasts, the NAEFS precipitation outlooks, the soil moisture tools based on the Constructed Analog on Soil Moisture (CAS), dynamical models (CFSv2, NMME, IRI, and IMME), the 384-hour total precipitation forecasts from several runs of the GFS, the four-month Palmer drought termination and amelioration probabilities, climatology, and initial conditions. An El Niño (ENSO) Watch is currently in effect, with the November 6 ENSO Diagnostic Discussion indicating a 58% chance of El Niño conditions during the winter and early spring.

A protracted, intense drought is affecting California, with 99.5% of the state designated in some degree of drought by the Drought Monitor, and 55% of the state in exceptional drought (D4, the most intense classification). Statewide precipitation data from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) indicates that December - February, the period covered by this SDO, brings slightly over half of the precipitation California receives each year on average, and closer to 60% in the central valleys and along the western tier of the state. Thus, climatological statistics alone favor at least some drought improvement. Even if precipitation were simply near normal, it would be considerably wetter than the past 3 wet seasons have been, engendering at least some improvement. Short-term forecasts call for fairly wet weather across northern parts of the state. From the northern Sierra Nevada and the southern Cascades westward to the coast, at least an inch of precipitation is expected by Thanksgiving, with 2 to locally over 6 inches anticipated from approximately Santa Rosa northward through northwestern California. Odds generally favor a drier period from late November through early December, but longer-term precipitation outlooks show enhanced chances for above-normal precipitation statewide for the month of December, and across roughly the southern half of the state for the December - February period as a whole. Based on these factors, drought improvement is expected across most of the state. However, it must be emphasized that improvement does not mean elimination or removal. In particular, most areas of extreme to exceptional drought likely will still be in the grip of a serious drought as winter ends despite any improvement. One factor lowering the confidence of the improvement forecast is the deep and protracted nature of the current drought situation, which may require fairly robust winter precipitation totals for a significant reduction in severity. Similar reasoning implies improvement will also occur in southwestern Oregon.
Forecast confidence for California and southwestern Oregon is moderate to high in the southern half of the region, and low to moderate farther north, where a wet winter is less likely.

Drought is forecast to persist in The Great Basin and northern Intermountain West, with some expansion expected in adjacent areas where there is currently abnormal dryness (D0) indicated by the Drought Monitor and/or subnormal precipitation has been observed over the past few months. In the northern Intermountain West, above-normal precipitation may occur in the short-term through the first few days of December, but odds favor below-normal precipitation for the 3 winter months as a whole, implying drought persistence and expansion. Generally 30% to 40% of each year's precipitation falls during these 3 months, so any precipitation deficits that accumulate during this period are somewhat difficult to overcome during the typically drier spring and summer months. Farther south, persistence is forecast through central and northern sections of Nevada and Utah where the December - February outlook shows no tilt of the odds toward either wetter- nor drier-than-normal conditions overall. The winter is slightly wetter than other times of the year, at least in Nevada, but the long-term nature of drought conditions will make improvement difficult in this region, where normal precipitation in an absolute sense is scanty. Compared to California's statewide average precipitation of nearly 12 inches for the 3 winter months, Nevada and Utah both average under 3.5 inches during this period.
Forecast confidence is high in the northern Intermountain West, and moderate across central and northern sections of Nevada and Utah.

In the upper southern Plains, from the western half of Oklahoma and the northern Texas Panhandle northward through the drought areas in Colorado and Kansas, drought persistence is forecast. Light precipitation at best is anticipated through the end of November, and while surplus precipitation is favored during December - February, this is a relatively dry time of year, bringing only 5 to 15 percent of the annual total on average. In addition, soil moisture approximations show decreased moisture values significantly more often than increased numbers. As a result, it seems unlikely that even a relatively wet December - February will bring much drought relief given the climatological considerations. Still, the odds favoring wetness do bring some uncertainty in.
Forecast confidence for the upper southern Plains is moderate.

In the northern Plains, the small area of drought is expected to persist. Soils should freeze up early in the period, so any improvement in soil moisture content will have to wait for spring thaw. In addition, only about 5 to 10 percent of the annual average precipitation falls during this 3-month period. Given the small potential for substantial changes by the end of February, drought is forecast to persist where it exists, but the odds for development in any given region are relatively low, though not out of the question.
Forecast confidence for the northern Plains is high.

A small area of drought is expected to develop in southeastern Michigan and perhaps some adjacent areas by the end of February. This area has been drier than normal for the last 3 months or so, and while moderate precipitation on the order of an inch or so is forecast by Thanksgiving, odds favor dryness during December - February 2014/15, allowing moisture deficits to increase. In conjunction with the antecedent dryness, it seems likely that at least a small area of drought will develop.
Forecast confidence in the southeastern Great Lakes is moderate.

Improvement is forecast for the areas of drought that exist from the southern Rockies eastward through the southern Plains, and the southeastern states. In the short term, the period up through Thanksgiving should be wet in most areas from central Texas and eastern Oklahoma eastward. Totals over an inch should be fairly widespread, with 2 to 3 inch amounts anticipated in the central and eastern Red River Valley and along the central Gulf Coast region. In the longer term, surplus winter precipitation is favored throughout the southern tier of states, although late November and early December look dry at this point.
Forecast confidence for the southern tier of states is moderate to high.

The small areas of drought in the lower Northeast are expected to be removed by the end of February. Near to above normal precipitation is forecast on all time scales, particularly near the coast, and over an inch is anticipated by Thanksgiving. Still, this is a difficult region to forecast. Some upper-level air pressure anomaly patterns, such as the Atlantic Oscillation, can be the primary factors determining precipitation over the winter, and these are always difficult to forecast in the longer term.
Forecast confidence for the Northeast is moderate.

There is a strong likelihood of below normal precipitation through the end of the period across Hawaii, which is typically the wettest time of the year. To wit, precipitation amounts during the cooler time of the year are the most critical in determining the evolution of any drought across the islands. As a result, the small areas of existing drought are expected to persist, and drought is forecast to broadly expand, covering much if not all of the state by the end of February. There is some inherent uncertainty in forecasting conditions far enough removed from normal as to induce drought where there is only spotty dryness to begin with, so our confidence is reduced slightly.
Forecast confidence for Hawaii is moderate.

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NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction
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Page Author: Climate Prediction Center Internet Team
Page last modified: November 20, 2014
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