Odds of El Niño continue to grow; impacts uncertain

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 14, 2014 - Odds of a major El Niño hitting the United States are growing and it could bring with it some extreme weather patterns.

The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) now say there is a 65-percent chance that the phenomenon will come later this summer and up to 80 percent it will happen later this year. Those projections are up from a 50-50 chance projected last month.

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While there is a 1-in-5 chance that El Niño will not occur, most scientists believe now that it's not a matter of if the anomaly will come, but how big it will be.

“The likelihood of El Niño grows greater every day,” said one researcher at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. But, he added, “the bigger question is what impact it will have here in the United States.”

The lack of certainty that El Niño will occur in any given year is exceeded only by the inability to determine just how any effects will manifest themselves. El Niños occur every two to seven years, generated by a reversal of trade winds in the Pacific Ocean that pushes warmer water to the east and up to the surface. That warmer water interacts with the atmosphere and that increases air temperatures, which, in turn, alter traditional weather patterns.

In recent times, most of those who manage risk in the U.S. -- including agricultural producers -- will readily remember the 1997-98 event, the biggest El Niño ever, which caused sustained flooding, extensive drought and tornadoes across the country, resulting in some $10 billion in crop losses and damages.

Researchers say the characteristics of the warm water just below the Pacific Ocean's surface are about the same as those measured ahead of the 1997-98 event. The heat content in the Pacific was at its highest values for the past month since researchers first began recording the causal effects of El Niños in 1979. Despite the uncertainty, the area of warming water now moving eastward - a body said by scientists to be larger than the United States and 300 feet deep - is prompting some analysts to look at past experiences to project what might be expected late this fall and early next year.

Californians are hoping that if this El Niño comes, it will bring more rainfall, as El Niños usually do, given the dire drought that has left the state's agriculture sector struggling. Some of California's heaviest rainfalls have coincided with El Niño events.

However, officials will also remember that during the winter of 1997-98, large parts of California saw twice the normal precipitation, resulting in floods, catastrophic storms and communities being evacuated.

Hopes that an El Niño can deliver rain later this year are also growing in Texas, which has been under extensive drought for more than two years, severely reducing the state's cattle herds and, in some areas, slashing water supplies for drinking and recreation. However, weather trackers with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) are emphasizing that not all El Niño events result in wet summers for Texas.

“In fact, of the past six (events), only one brought above normal rainfall to the majority of the state,” ERCOT meteorologist Chris Coleman said in a recent seasonal update. “Some El Niño events have been dry.”

In fact, drought could persist across the Southwest and generate heat that could eventually spread across the southern states, according to analysts with EarthRisk Technologies in San Diego.

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