What happened to the El Niño drought?

by Drew Lerner
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El Niño has made the headlines throughout 2014, but more so because of predicted drought that has never evolved rather than the calamity that was once predicted.

Scientists have struggled with El Niño since early in the spring season 2014. Back then, ocean temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean were warming at a phenomenal rate, scaring weather forecasters into believing a repeat of the 1998 record-setting El Niño was imminent. For a short few weeks it looked as though 2014 would be a calamitous year of extreme drought and crop failures in South Asia, eastern Australia and South Africa. It was also feared that other wild weather extremes would occur around the world like those of 1998 that caused billions of dollars in damage. But, the scientific community has a way to go before it fully understands El Niño even though it is hot on the track of a significant factor in world weather trends. We just have more to learn.

2014 will go down in the history books as a year with one of the most dramatic changes in India monsoon weather ever recorded. The El Niño-like event that got started during the early summer prevented rain from falling in India during June and early July and the lack of rain was dramatic enough that most producers and forecasters in India were preparing for an agricultural and economic crisis brought on by failing crops. However, along came late July and August, and suddenly the feared El Niño event went away. Just like stretching a rubber band too far, there was an atmospheric snap that took place over just a few weeks and suddenly El Niño disappeared. Along with the change in El Niño conditions came rain in India, rain in Australia and rain in Southeast Asia. All three of these regions are prone to serious drought when El Niño evolves during the Northern Hemisphere summer months.

Not only did it rain to relieve dryness in India and Southeast Asia during mid-summer, but it rained frequently in Southeast Asia from late July through September. Seasonal rains extended much deeper into the traditional dry season and almost all of the grain, oilseed, sugarcane, cocoa and other ingredient crops that were threatened with huge losses ended up with little to no loss.

That was not the end of El Niño. After the botched prediction of record or near-record El Niño conditions, forecasters recognized that the potential for El Niño was still prevailing. New forecasts were made that El Niño would evolve in the fourth quarter of 2014. The new forecasts were much more conservative than the spring and early summer forecast for a calamitous event, but there is still no official El Niño event today.

still possible, but not likely

With that said, El Niño is still possible, but not likely to be a significant event for very many areas in the world for the next few weeks. For a while though, El Niño did have a negative impact on winter weather in Australia where winter wheat, barley and canola production was reduced, but more recent weather has been promoting rain and not drought.

Drought in eastern Australia was serious enough during the spring season that many dryland summer crops in Queensland and northern New South Wales were not planted. Irrigated crops were seeded, but lower production for dryland sorghum, corn, sunseed, soybeans, groundnuts and sugarcane was anticipated because of reduced plantings and hot, dry, weather that came with drought.

More recently (in the middle to latter part of December), rain suddenly began falling in eastern Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Africa. These four areas have very high correlations for drought when El Niño is evolving. Reduced production of all unirrigated crops in all four regions is quite normal for El Niño. Forecasters have been predicting drought in these four areas most of this calendar year because of El Niño, but eastern Australia was the only place where drought was a serious concern. Much of that concern has been put to rest for a while because of recent rain.

Timely rains have been occurring in Indonesia and Malaysia for many months now. A couple of brief periods of dryness evolved during the year, but there has never been any prolonged dryness that would harm palm oil production, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, rice or a host of other crops produced there. The Philippines, like Australia, suffered from below average rainfall for a while this year, but the nation began receiving significant rain a few weeks ago and dryness is not much of an issue except in a few southern locations today.

South Africa suffered from winter drought that lasted into the spring. Wheat production was the lowest since 1933 and the byproduct of poor planting conditions during the late autumn and winter as well as poor rainfall during reproduction. South Africa’s traditionally greatest drought prone period associated with El Niño is in the late spring and summer – not the winter. Rain started falling in South Africa at the same time it began in Australia and the Philippines, providing timely rainfall to support planting of summer crops and aggressive new crop development. The region was reporting its best soil moisture of the year in the last days of December with no sign of returning dryness.

With rain falling in all of the traditionally El Niño drought-prone areas of the world, one has to ponder whether there really is an El Niño. A more significant pondering might be over whether meteorologists and climatologists really have a clue about what they are doing. Much of the non-scientific community would be quick to say without hesitation that atmospheric scientists do not have a clue. In our defense, our work is a work in progress. It is amazing that we have discovered so many patterns with such little recorded data. We just need more years of experience with the patterns to fully understand how they work and, most importantly, how all of the weather patterns overlay on one another. El Niño and La Niña events are just two of many cyclical patterns that have been discovered in recent years and it is becoming obvious that they all interact with each other making for differing reactions to developing pattern changes.

The current El Niño event is not quite the traditional textbook event that forecasters are trained on and World Weather, Inc. believes that is part of the problem. “Normal” El Niño events produce warmer than usual ocean water temperatures between the International Dateline and coast of South America with cooler ocean water near Australia and Southeast Asia. This El Niño event has not only produced warmer than usual ocean surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, but it extends west of the Dateline to some of the water immediately east of New Guinea, Indonesia.

Anomalous world weather patterns induced by El Niño require a concentrated region of warmer than usual surface ocean water over the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean with sharply reduced temperatures in the western equatorial Pacific Ocean. The warm water in the eastern Pacific Ocean is normally associated with a huge deep low pressure center whereas the cooler ocean water in the western Pacific is normally supportive of high pressure over that region. That is why in traditional El Niño events drought occurs in Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia because of the presence of high pressure. The contrast in ocean temperatures is necessary to produce a strong enough high pressure system over Indonesia, the Philippines and eastern Australia to induce the drought.

If the ocean temperatures do not contrast as sharply across the eastern and western Pacific Ocean as in textbook-style El Niño events, there cannot be a strong high pressure system over the western Pacific Ocean and drought cannot exist or be as persistent as tradition dictates.

Rain in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa is all occurring right now because ocean temperatures are not only warm in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, but in the central Pacific as well. In order to get the drought to resume or redevelop, ocean water temperatures around northeastern Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia need to cool off, and there is no sign of that occurring in the next few weeks. Therefore, expect more rain while the forecasts and talk of El Niño evolution continues. We will be watching for changes in late winter or early spring, but World Weather, Inc. is not looking for serious drought for a while.

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