New Snowstorm Closes Airports as It Bears Down on Plains

A new round of heavy snow is moving across the Great Plains, pushing wheat prices down, closing highways and airports and threatening parts of the Midwest that received more than a foot (30 centimeters) last week.

Interstate 40 and several secondary roads have been closed near Amarillo, Texas, according to the state Transportation Department’s website. Amarillo and Lubbock international airports shut, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.

“Snow and blowing snow will reduce visibility to zero at times, producing white-out conditions in many spots,” the National Weather Service said. “Roads will be snow-packed and icy. Snow drifts 5 feet or higher in some areas will make driving impossible.”

The heavy snow may help alleviate some of the drought that has plagued the central U.S. since last year and Texas since 2011, said Tom Kines, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

“No doubt there are some positives out of this,” Kines said.

Blizzard warnings stretch from eastern New Mexico through the Texas Panhandle into Oklahoma and Kansas, according to the weather service. Winter storm warnings and advisories reach across Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois into Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

Hit Again

“The storm is under way out there and a lot of areas that got hit from the last storm are going to get hit again from this storm,” Kines said. “From the Texas Panhandle to eastern Kansas and eastern Missouri, that is the area that looks like it’s going to be the hardest hit with anywhere from 8 to 16 inches of snow.”

The storm will move east today and threaten the Midwest with snow tomorrow, Kines said. Chicago may receive more than 6 inches of snow starting early tomorrow and continuing through the day, the weather service said.

At least 1,365 flights were canceled across the U.S. last week as a snowstorm made its way across the Plains and Midwest, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based airline tracking company. Kansas City’s airport closed Feb. 21 and didn’t reopen until the next day, the FAA said.

As of 10:12 a.m. New York time, 168 flights in the U.S. were scrubbed, with the highest cancellations in Texas and Kansas, according to FlightAware.

Drought Extent

About 56 percent of the contiguous 48 states are affected by drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska. The drought in the Midwest, the worst since the 1930s, has sent corn prices up, lowered water levels in the Mississippi River and threatens to persist into the coming planting season.

Wheat slid to an eight-month low in Chicago today on speculation that the snow will help ease the dryness.

Heavy snow on the cusp of spring may help recharge soil moisture if the water content is able seep into the soil rather than just blow off frozen land, said Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation center in Lincoln.

U.S. wheat production may drop 7.4 percent this year to 2.1 billion bushels as yields fall to 45.2 bushels an acre from 46.3 bushels, the Department of Agriculture projected Feb. 22. Kansas and Oklahoma were last year’s biggest U.S. growers of winter wheat, usually planted in the Plains beginning in September. The crops will emerge from dormancy in the coming month before harvesting starts in June.

‘Good Start’

Since the wheat-growing region entered the season at a deficit, the snow “is a good start but it isn’t a one-off” that will erase the drought, Svoboda said. Soil moisture was in good shape at the start of last year’s growing season and then the drought came on hard and fast, he said.

The area of the country that will certainly see some relief following the latest storms is the Southeast, which has been in the grip of drought for almost three years, he said.

Last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, renewed a drought emergency for the state first issued in July 2011, according to his website.

As much as 15 inches snow may fall in Amarillo, where a blizzard warning is in effect, the weather service said.

While heavy snow is expected on the north side of the low pressure system, heavy rain and severe thunderstorms may break out across the U.S. Gulf Coast, the weather service predicted.

Flood warnings and watches stretch from Louisiana to South Carolina. There is a 5 percent chance of tornadoes and a 30 percent chance of damaging wind from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle today, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

Northeast Outlook

Later this week, the storm may bring rain to the major cities of the Northeast, including New York, Kines said. Any snow will probably be in the mountains, away from the coast.

The weather pattern that is producing the storms may keep cooler weather across the eastern U.S. from the Great Lakes to the Northeast for the next couple of weeks.

“Those areas are in for an extended period of cooler weather and it’s going to be slow to leave,” Kines said. “There is no springtime in sight.”

Long-term forecasts of cooler weather in the large cities of the Midwest and Northeast during the heating season from November to March can drive natural gas and heating oil prices higher on speculation of greater demand.

Temperatures across New York and New England are expected to fall about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 Celsius) below normal from March 2 to March 6, said Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland.

The Midwest and Southeast are expected to have temperatures 5 to 8 degrees below normal during the same period, Rogers said.

For meteorologists, spring starts March 1, while by the calendar the season gets under way in the Northern Hemisphere on March 20.

(Updates with comments on drought relief possibilities in 13th paragraph.)
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