Farmers in Georgia and other parts of the lower Southeast were irrigating their crops at full capacity during the latter part of May, as hot, dry conditions persisted in some areas.

Daytime temperatures in the region were averaging five to 10 degrees above normal, and few farmers were reporting surplus moisture conditions in their soils.

In Georgia, soil moisture conditions were rated 5 percent very short, 32 percent short, 58 percent adequate and 5 percent surplus. Some growers throughout the Southeast were forced to replant cotton and peanuts.

Cotton, peanut and vegetable growers also were reporting thrips pressure, and tobacco producers were seeing symptoms of tomato spotted wilt virus.

Spring-plant row crops in Alabama, Georgia and Florida — including corn, soybeans, peanuts and cotton — were rated in fair to good condition in late May.

The Southern Climate Consortium recently announced that sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific are going back to normal, hopefully a sign that weather patterns in the Southeast will be returning to normal. The Southeast Climate Consortium, or SECC, is a coalition of six universities — Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Miami, University of Georgia, Auburn University and the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

The La Niña event that we have experienced the past few months has died down, according to SECC forecasters.

“The outlook for the coming months is calling for neutral conditions in the equatorial Pacific. The change in the ENSO phase could very well mark a return to more seasonable temperatures and rainfall in the Southeast,” states the SECC.

The Consortium notes, however, that the impact of changing ENSO phases (from La Niña to neutral) may not be felt immediately in the region.

“La Niña fades away, but impacts linger,” says the SECC. “In recent weeks, sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have returned to normal (Neutral) and should remain in the normal range for the rest of the summer. Neutral conditions generally correspond to variable temperature and rainfall patterns that average out close to normal over the course of the season.”

The return to normal of the Pacific Ocean follows a brief period of La Niña-like conditions (colder-than-normal ocean temperatures in the eastern and central tropical Pacific). These conditions began in November of 2005 and affected the climate of the Southeast in the late winter and spring seasons of 2006.

Turning to the general climate forecast for the early summer, the SECC says predicting the summer climate for the Southeast as hot and humid is “a pretty safe bet.”

“Neutral conditions generally correspond to variable temperature and rainfall patterns that average out close to normal over the course of the season. Summer convective rains, usually characterized by frequent afternoon thundershowers, should begin in late May or early in June and gain momentum as the summer progresses. The convective rains usually arrive first in southern Florida but quickly spread up the state and into Georgia and Alabama. With the return of the Pacific to neutral conditions, there is nothing preventing the thundershowers from arriving on time and in plentiful amounts,” according to the SECC.

Summer temperatures, say forecasters, are tied closely to precipitation patterns. “Frequent rain and cloudiness tend to moderate temperatures while clear skies and drier weather will allow afternoon temperatures to rise.

In Georgia and Alabama, most recharge of surface and groundwater storage takes place in the winter months. With summer evapotranspiration rates typically exceeding precipitation, expect soil moisture, surface and groundwater levels to continue to decline,” according to the Consortium.

Because of the prolonged warm and dry conditions that La Niña brings to the Southeast in the winter and spring months, it usually sets the stage for a very active wildfire season, says the SECC. On average, twice the normal acreage is burned in Florida alone during La Niña wildfire seasons.

Meanwhile, the NOAA and its resident hurricane expert, William Gray, says the 2006 tropical season is likely to be another active one. While an active season is expected, it is highly unlikely that 2006 will equal the record-setting year of 2005, says Gray.

Conditions favoring an active season include above-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, favorable wind shear, the absence of El Niño, and the continued active phase of the 30 to 50-year cycle.

Weak early season systems are a possibility, with the preferred formation areas for early season storms being the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream region off the Southeast Atlantic Coast.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com