White Christmas? Start worrying about El Nino and its effect on food prices

The Christmastime weather effects of El Niño will be felt across the world. Let’s hope the economy – including your supermarket’s produce aisle – can stand it

The Christmastime weather effects of El Niño will be felt across the world. Let’s hope the economy – including your supermarket’s produce aisle – can stand it

While many Americans spend days wondering whether they will get a white Christmas, there__s a bigger, better weather event to watch __ and it__s one that will affect the US economy.

There__s a good chance the weather phenomenon El Ni_o will appear in the next six months, weather forecasters say, but farmers don__t need an official decree from meteorologists __ they can just look out the window.

Those recent rains in California? Thank El Ni_o. Most farmers in Argentina and southern Brazil are also getting extra precipitation. The weather phenomenon was named El Ni_o, a reference to the Spanish phrase for __Christ child__, because it often arrives around Christmas.

El Ni_o does not bring gifts of rain to all farmers.

In Australia and some countries in the western Pacific, the phenomenon usually means drier weather.

On 4 December, the US Climate Prediction Center said in its monthly forecast the odds for an El Ni_o to be __present__ during the next six months are 65%.

If it is confirmed, El Ni_o is expected to last until spring 2015.

There__s not yet a definitive declaration of the weather event because the Climate Prediction Center takes the three-month average sea-surface temperature in the east-central Pacific Ocean before declaring the onset of an El Ni_o episode.

Agricultural meteorologists and traders say some global weather patterns in the past few weeks suggest the hand of El Ni_o, but added that this year__s event is not a prime example.

__It__s not textbook material. The textbook variety of El Ni_o produces well-above average temperatures across the eastern equatorial Pacific, from the International Dateline to the southern American coast,__ said Drew Lerner, the owner of World Weather Inc.

The warmer temperatures are there, but other events like the pool of colder-than-normal water in the western Pacific Ocean around Indonesia and Malaysia is small, and some of the areas that go drier during the cycle haven__t been as parched.

__There are few areas outside of Australia that have had serious dryness. Indonesia and Malaysia have seen regular rain. If this were a traditional El Ni_o, they would be bone-dry__ by early December, Lerner said.

The lack of definite correlations so far makes this a __weak__ El Ni_o, said Mike Tannura, chief meteorologist at T-Storm Weather.

Even so, there are some typical El Ni_o weather patterns hitting parts of Argentina, Brazil and California bringing beneficial rains to crop areas. This time of year is the prime growing season in the southern hemisphere.

__Typically El Ni_o years mean wetter-than-normal conditions across much of Argentina and southern Brazil. We__ve already seen conditions that fit that bill across those regions for most of the last month, so in a sense I wouldn__t anticipate that an official declaration of El Ni_o would really mean that much of a difference for those regions,__ said Bennett Meier, agricultural strategist at Morgan Stanley.

That extra rain means the chance for a bumper crop out of the southern hemisphere. Brazil__s government forecaster, Conab, already raised its forecast for soybeans 11% over last season, to 95.8m tons. That would be a record if realized. Brazil is the second-largest global soybean producer, behind the US.

That estimate is slightly higher than the US Department of Agriculture__s estimate of the Brazilian crop, 94m tons.

It__s still early in the season, though, said Sean Lusk, director of the commercial hedging division at Walsh Trading. The key development time for Argentinian and Brazilian soybeans is January, which is similar to August in the US.

__If conditions we__re seeing persist __ so far, so good __ the first two to three weeks of January will put [price] pressure on the markets,__ Lusk said.

Meier said so far he__s penciling in just average yields for South American soybean production, but said there is a risk yields could rise if the weather is good.

Even if Argentina and Brazil deliver only an average-sized crop, Meier said his outlook for crop prices is negative because the US had a mammoth harvest in the past few months and total global supplies are hefty.

Australia is one region that isn__t happy that El Ni_o is back. Lerner said the main growing areas Down Under, Queensland and part of New South Wales, were already dry. That__s hurt the sugar cane, grain and cotton crops, he said.

__Some farmers chose not to plant because of the forecast for El Ni_o. For others who did, the hot, dry conditions in recent weeks caused withering and brought death to crop,__ Lerner said, particularly for farmers who rely on natural rainfall for water.
Areas that use irrigation were not suffering, he said. Some recent rains fell in agricultural areas, but not enough to help crops.

Both Tannura and Lerner said traditionally El Ni_o is very kind to California, and the early December rains were related to the weather event.

Still, Lerner said, what__s lacking currently is the colder air El Ni_o brings, and the snowpack in the mountains is very low. He said there__s still time for the snowpack to build up in the mountains, but as of early December it was only 6% to 8% of 1 April levels.

A few rain storms, though, won__t alleviate the severe dryness the state is experiencing, they said.

__One rain event will not break that drought,__ Tannura said. __You need long, sustained periods with good rains and snows to break it. The El Ni_o pattern is exactly what you want to start doing that.__

But before California farmers start rejoicing, Lerner notes El Ni_o isn__t the only kid in town.

__It has to interact with other prevailing weather patterns. There is a pattern prevailing that wants to take the storm track to the east. Then, California__s northern and central parts will turn drier as we get into the heart of the winter season. Southern California and Arizona may do better with precipitation,__ Lerner said.

The guardian | Debbie Carlson

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