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Signals Point To “Weak” El Niño Pattern

“If we were to switch over to an El Nińo, one would expect an end of the drought in Argentina.”

– ANNE FRICK

Indications of an El Nińo weather pattern have stalled after building for several months, and that’s generally good news for grain crops in Australia and South Africa, experts said.

But scientists expect an El Nińo to remain in place at least until February, and it’s still too early to predict its intensity.

“At this point we’re in a weak El Nińo. I would not say we’re at moderate strength yet, even though we would expect it to attain that strength,” said Michelle L’Heureux of the U. S. Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The latest El Nińo pattern is not likely to match the strength of the 1997-98 edition, which caused 2,000 deaths and billions of dollars in crop damage globally, she said.

During an El Nińo, a warming of sea temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean alters weather around the globe, causing drought in some areas and increased storms in others.

Accordingly, the impact for grain crops globally varies by region, with a mix of losers and winners.

Among the biggest concerns is Australia, the world’s third-largest wheat exporter, which is at a heightened risk of drought during an El Nińo year. The country endured back-to-back droughts in 2006-07 and 2007-08 that slashed wheat production roughly in half.

So far, Australia’s wheat regions have received enough timely rain to prompt projections for the highest production in four years. But a resurgent El Nińo could imperil the crop.

“After the last few years of drought-type conditions, they don’t have much subsoil moisture to fall back on,” said Shawn McCambridge with Prudential Bache Commodities in Chicago.

“So that pattern of timely rainfall would have to continue, or we could see significant losses once again.”

Also vulnerable to El Nińorelated drought is South Africa’s maize crop.

MILD FOR U. S.

In the United States, the world’s top exporter of corn, soybeans and wheat, El Nińo is associated with mild winters in the primary Midwest crop belt.

Although El Nińo tends to peak from December to April, before U. S. corn and soybeans are planted, it also tends to reduce the likelihood of drought in the following growing season, said Elwynn Taylor, a climatologist with the Iowa State University extension.

“It’s sort of an insurance policy that we’re not going to have a drought,” Taylor said.

Taylor is not convinced that an El Nińo is in place yet, but he expects the cycle to emerge by late December.

“If it does come in by Christmastime, it would be a factor in that we would expect another big crop,” he said, referring to U. S. corn and soybeans.

SOUTH AMERICA

El Nińo is associated with increased moisture in Argentina, the world’s No. 2 corn exporter and No. 3 soybean exporter, and would help relieve dry weather there.

“If we were to switch over to an El Nińo, one would expect an end of the drought in Argentina,” said Anne Frick, senior oilseed analyst with Prudential Bache Commodities.

Argentina is also the world’s largest exporter of soyoil, and El Nińo could indirectly raise demand for soyoil by threatening the production in Southeast Asia of palm oil, a competing product, Frick said.

The impact of El Nińo on Brazil, the world’s second-largest soybean supplier, is not as strong.

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