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El Niño Rises, Winter To Get Milder

The current winter deep freeze on the Prairies could soon turn balmy because of El Nińo, according to a Canadian Wheat Board weather analyst.

A rising El Nińo phenomenon – one of the strongest ever – could bring warmer winter weather to Western Canada, possibly followed by below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation in spring, said Bruce Burnett, the CWB’s director of weather and market analysis.

If that forecast holds true, it’ll be the third straight year for a cool, wet start to the growing season in much of the Prairies.

But that wouldn’t be bad because southern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan could use the moisture, Burnett said.

The region has already received heavy snowfall. As a result, crop prospects for those regions could be decent this year.

“There’s a reasonable chance of having good production prospects this year, especially considering we are dry in parts of western Saskatchewan and Alberta,” Burnett said following a Jan. 6 presentation at St. Jean Farm Days.

El Nińo is a phenomenon involving the warming of surface water in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. The phenomenon occurs every four to 12 years and can affect weather patterns worldwide.

Typically, an El Nińo winter in Western Canada is mild and dry, followed by below-average temperatures and average to above-average precipitation in spring.

“There’s a reasonable chance of having good production prospects this year.”

– BRUCE BURNETT, CWB

So far, winter throughout much of the West has been marked by cold weather and heavier-than-normal snowfall, especially in southern regions. Burnett said that’s because the arctic oscillation (an atmospheric circulation pattern) is in an unusually strong cold phase – the most extreme in over 30 years. This has produced extreme winter weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere, involving heavy snowfall in northern India, Europe and China, as well as ice jams along the northern Mississippi River.

But temperatures should moderate later this winter as El Nińo takes effect.

Burnett said the warming pattern in the Pacific off South America is one of the strongest on record. It is expected to peak later in January or February, when weather patterns should change.

A strong warming effect doesn’t necessarily mean major disruptions in weather patterns. But it does indicate a persistent El Nińo throughout spring and into summer, said Burnett.

While El Nińo doesn’t usually severely impact weather and crop production in Western Canada and the Northern U. S. Plains, other countries could be affected, he said.

India had a monsoon failure in 2009 and cannot afford another one in 2010. Rice crops depend on monsoon moisture to grow and irrigation reservoirs rely on monsoons for replenishing, Burnett said.

Australia risks a return to severe drought in 2010, following some relief in 2009, if El Nińo persists into July and August, when wheat seeding occurs, he said.

In his presentation, Burnett said 2009 provided Western Canada with some of the most extreme weather on record.

Average monthly temperatures were below normal from January to August. Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan had only 60 to 80 per cent of their normal growing degree days.

But September and November were warmer than normal, enabling crops to ripen and farmers to finish harvesting them.

September set maximum temperature records across the West. In fact, September had more days with temperatures above 30C than July and August did, Burnett said. [email protected]

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