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Dancing to the El Niño shuffle

El Niño may require a month or more to develop and unleash its full effect.

Weather has got to rank as one of the hot topics of conversation when farmers communicate with their neighbors. After all, like Will Rogers often reminded us, "farming goes as the weather goes."

But beyond that, perhaps our pre-occupation with discussing the weather so much is because weather is fickle, plain and simple, meaning ever-changing and unpredictable, even by the best forecasters.

But Dave DuBois, a New Mexico State University (NMSU) climatologist, says the current and often conflicting dialogue about the on-again, off-again chances of an El Niño event this winter may be the result of over thinking the issue. While NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecasters are still giving a 67 percent chance of development for an El Niño this winter, most agree it could well be a late and weak system.

But DuBois says significant rains over the last 60 days could be a good indication that the climate is trending more toward favorable conditions for an El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO event, that should bring wetter and colder conditions to parts of the Southwest.

He says El Niño may require a month or more to develop and unleash its full effect, but he points to the return of more normal rainfall totals in recent weeks to much of New Mexico and parts of Texas as a possible prelude to what may yet be coming.

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While rainfall amounts very greatly from block to block and farm to farm, so far this fall many areas of New Mexico have fared extremely well in terms of the amount of rain accumulated. In Las Cruces, for example, as much as 90 percent of the city's annual average rain total has fallen this year already. According to rain gauges at NMSU, nearly 100 percent of the annual average has been realized at that location.

DuBois and Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielson-Gammon agree that if and when an El Niño forms this winter, chances are good it will be a weak system. But DuBois says that doesn't mean it won't have a positive impact on weather in the Southwest.

More snow?

Depending on the intensity of ENSO, higher elevations across the Southwest could receive more snow this year than in recent years, and overall wetter conditions with more rain and more snow. Such periods of precipitation could stretch well into the spring season.

DuBois and other NMSU researchers say the significant rain that has already fallen across the Southwest over the summer and fall will, in itself, serve to increase chances for good winter grasses and improved forage conditions in 2015, a positive development for farmers and ranchers. But if El Niño helps to bring additional moisture in the winter and early spring months, most of New Mexico should see much improved soil moisture conditions and an optimistic start to the 2015 growing season.

Some recovery to reservoir levels in southeastern New Mexico has already been experienced thanks to recent heavy rains, but a wet winter and spring, coupled with a significant snow melt in late spring, could benefit the middle and lower Rio Grande Valley watershed, an area still needing increased lake, including the important Elephant Butte Reservoir.

Overall, if a weak El Niño develops late in the season, forecasters say some benefit will be realized for parts of the Southwest. But California state climatologist Michael Anderson warns it would do little to relieve the intense drought gripping his and most western states. A major ENSO event might bring the relief California so desperately needs, but a weak system would provide mixed results. Perhaps snowfall in higher elevations would be greater, but the needed rains would fall short of bringing significant drought relief.

Since weather is so fickle, most forecasters agree they will be keeping an eye on developments near-term in hopes of garnering a better indication of what the winter and spring may bring for farmers and ranchers across the West and Southwest.

For now, with or without an El Niño, farmers and ranchers across much of New Mexico and parts of Texas are still celebrating the beneficial rainfall received in recent months.

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