Rainy days provide temporary relief to Missouri trees.
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Rainy days provide temporary relief to Missouri trees.

Date: August 30, 2006
By: Lucie Wolken
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - While the stress put on Missouri trees by the ongoing drought has been destructive, a change in forecast could prevent irreversible damage, according plant experts in Missouri.

Recent precipitation that has brought with it cooler temperatures has provided much needed, if only temporary, relief to foliage across the state. 

According to Anthony Lupo, University of Missouri-Columbia professor of Atmospheric Sciences, in addition to recent precipitation, meteorologists are anticipating an El Nino condition for the winter.  El Nino, which is described as a disruption to the ocean-atmosphere system in the Pacific, if weak, could bring with it cooler temperatures and more rainfall. 

"Depending on how strong that El Nino condition gets will affect how dry or moist it will get here.  If it stays a weaker El Nino type then there is a good chance that the fall will see a little bit of relief and that would be helpful."

An above-average amount of precipitation in the coming season is exactly what could salvage the long-term health of Missouri trees. 

"At this point trees have died due to the drought, but this has not been extreme.  If conditions do improve, then a major impact can be avoided.  If not, trees impacted by long-term stress may succumb to insects or disease," said Lisa Alan, forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

In drought conditions like Missouri is currently experiencing, older trees that have more extensive root systems are more resilient and have a greater ability to survive, according to Chris Starbuck, University of Missouri-Columbia professor of Plant Sciences.

"These plants have evolved over hundreds of years.  They have mechanisms to survive droughts.  Just when you think things are getting desperate you get a little bit of rain," said Starbuck. 

While these recent developments appear hopeful, currently 37 counties across the state are still under phase 3, conservation drought status.  Experts believe that central Missouri will need to experience around 5 to 7 inches of rain to be at average.  Southern and western Missouri will need to experience more like 9 to 10 inches.  Both levels are well above normal amounts of precipitation. 

In addition, Lupo does not rule out the possibility that the El Nino condition could be strong, causing the exact opposite affect on rainfall.While a mild El Nino is expected to increase precipitation, a strong El Nino likely would lead to dryer conditions, he said.

"Weak El Ninos tend to dominate in conditions like we are in now and that is just based on the historical data," said Lupo.  "All indications are saying it will be weak and I have to agree with that based on our own studies of things."