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ENSO weather pattern shifting into neutral

The global weather's two most unruly children have been spanked soundly and put to bed. It's only slightly reassuring that their wacky mother is now back in control. Scientifically, the two children are known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is marked by significant changes in ocean temperature off the northwestern coast of South America. The warm phase of this cycle is El Nino, the cold phase, La Nina. In English, the terms mean "little boy" and "little girl," respectively.

It's hard to comprehend how the waters off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador can have such a huge impact on little towns in Mississippi. But many meteorologists believe that La Nina's tantrum, which began after her brother's grim reign ended in 1998, was directly responsible for three straight years of drought during the spring and winter in much of the Delta.

There is still some debate as to whether she was also the primary culprit for a trio of arid Julys and Augusts. This period was most devastating for farmers as the dry weather slowly and agonizingly dried up promising yields and profits and overtaxed groundwater reserves.

The good news is that the National Weather Service is reporting that the ENSO is now heading into a sort of neutral phase where weather patterns in the Americas return to more "normal" behavior.

The bad news is that while Mother Nature is back (so to speak), she's never been known for consistent kindliness to farmers either. Scientists do believe, however, she will bring more rain.

"We expect a return to a more-typical rainfall pattern across the Deep South in the upcoming months," said Jay Grymes with the Southern Regional Climate Center in Baton Rouge, La. "In fact, I would say we're starting to see some of that now."

On the other hand, the NWS doesn't think that we're in for an especially cold winter. Scientists don't think the link between La Nina and temperature is as strong as it is between La Nina and rainfall patterns. And so, the one- to three-month forecast from the NWS calls for another relatively mild winter, although not quite as warm as last winter.

Too bad. A cold winter would mean more chances for more of those boll weevil-killing cold snaps to occur. As farmers know, several cold snaps of temperatures in the teens, for four to five days in length, especially in moisture-laden soils, kills insects before they emerge, beginning a domino effect toward lower production costs.

Whether or not the end of La Nina will mean an end to the serial summer droughts is a much more difficult question for NWS to answer, since the agency never really established a strong correlation between the two. But Grymes offered a slight glimmer of hope. "It seems relatively unlikely that we will continue to see this persistent extraordinarily dry weather."

THE VALUE of U.S. agricultural exports will climb in fiscal year, for the second year in a row, according to USDA projections. Exports are expected to increase to $51.5 billion - 2 percent over revised estimates for fiscal 2000 - marking a continuing upswing since the Asian financial setbacks of 1997-99.

A rise in volume accounts for much of the gain, as large global supplies of many commodities are expected to keep prices relatively low.

Exports of high-value products are projected up just 0.6 percent to $33 billion, reflecting projected gains in horticultural products and soybean oil.

Increased demand for U.S. agricultural exports reflects favorable economic conditions world wide. Also, the dollar is expected to depreciate against the euro, yen, and Canadian dollar, making U.S. exports more competitive.

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