Higher odds for El Niño flame fear of reduced global crop yields

BY Ellen Rolfes  May 8, 2014 at 1:05 PM EST
Photo by Ian Sane/Flickr Image has been slightly modified from the original.

Photo by Ian Sane/Flickr (Image has been slightly modified from the original.)

With weather forecasters reporting higher odds that El Niño will strike this year, global commodity and energy markets are on edge.

The Climate Prediction Center, an agency that is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced Wednesday in their monthly report that chances for an El Niño weather system have reached 65 percent, up from a 50 percent chance in April.

El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Normal upwellings of deep, cold water stop as a result, and ocean surface temperatures can rise as much as 8 degrees warmer in certain parts of the Pacific. These warmer waters create large changes to typical atmospheric circulation, which can alter weather in regions far from the tropical Pacific.

Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean as of May 7, 2014. Image by National Centers for Environmental Prediction/NOAA

Sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean as of May 7, 2014. Image by National Centers for Environmental Prediction/NOAA

The weather pattern can trigger drought in some regions and flooding in others. Apart from potential wildfire or flood dangers, the largest effect could be hits to global crop yields. A strong El Niño pattern can wither crops in Australia, Southeast Asia, India and Africa and drown crops in the Midwest and Brazil.

Production estimates for several crops which are already under stress will have to be revised downwards,” said Vanessa Tan, an investment analyst at Phillip Futures. Without monsoon rains that are critical for agriculture, crops in India, for example, — especially sugar, rice and wheat — could suffer and cause prices to dramatically increase.

However, if El Niño does hit in 2014, the National Weather Service’s Jon Gottschalck predicts the effects will be minimal to the Midwest.

“Even if we see El Niño conditions develop, some of the stronger impacts would be in the fall and winter,” Gottschalck told Farm Futures in February. “The odds of having much impact on the Midwest’s growing season are pretty low this summer.”