East-central Australia has been enduring severe drought for an extended period of time. Long range weather forecasters are now talking about a new El Niño event expected to develop later this year. El Niño events are harsh on eastern Australia agricultural areas, resulting in serious drought quite often. The return of El Niño later this year and into 2019 raises a sense of urgency in getting significant rain to fall prior to the onset of El Niño conditions so that the severity of drought will not reach extreme levels.

Rainfall in Queensland and northern New South Wales has been well below average since February, and the February rain event occurred mainly in southeastern Queensland, leaving other areas in east-central Australia quite dry. The last, more generalized rain event that impacted all of Queensland and northern New South Wales was in October 2017.

Water supply varies greatly with the biggest shortages in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Some rural water systems are running at 36.9% to 55.5% of normal. The nation does an exceptional job at conserving water because of frequent droughts, but worry is rising over the current drought because of the potential that El Niño will evolve before there is adequate relief from drought conditions that already have been prevailing over the past year.

El Niño events tend to suppress rain in eastern Australia during the Southern Hemisphere spring and summer months. Sometimes the dryness can begin early, depending on the specific months in which El Niño evolution begins. Most El Niño events begin in the late winter or spring and are most significant during the late spring and summer. That is the time of year that rainfall is usually below average most significantly.

Forecasters have been predicting the start of the next El Niño event for later in the third quarter of this year. Ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean have been warming in the past few weeks, but so far the anomalies are not significant enough to start affecting world weather. However, the mere fact that warming has begun and the potential is high that by September there will be a notable step up in the warming trend greatly limits the amount of time for drought relief to occur before El Niño begins robbing eastern Australia of precious water resources for another year.

The first rain reported in months occurred briefly in the last week of June and additional rain was expected in early July. However, none of the rain was expected to be great enough to recharge soil moisture. There is still plenty of time for greater rain to fall prior to the start of El Niño, but this is not usually a time of year that promotes large amounts of rain.

Winter wheat, barley and canola planting from northern New South Wales into Queensland has been on hold except in irrigated production areas since mid-April when the planting season normally begins. A few meager rain events have occurred, and a small amount of planting may be completed, but only in irrigated fields. Dryland crops need greater moisture to support planting, germination and emergence, and the prospects for such conditions are very low. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has suggested very low probabilities for above average rainfall through September from northern New South Wales into Victoria, and also from southeastern Queensland to northern portions of both Queensland and Northern Territory. That leaves a very narrow region in southern Queensland and northeastern New South Wales with a 40% to 45% possibility for above average rainfall. Southern Australia wheat, barley and canola production areas have seen sufficient rainfall this autumn and early days of winter to establish crops well enough to limit potential losses if greater rain does not evolve in Queensland or Northern New South Wales. However, if the long-range forecast is correct and poor rainfall will occur through September, the odds of improving rainfall from October through March 2019 are going to remain poor and that suggests smaller winter, spring and summer crops from unirrigated areas in the eastern part of the nation.

Australia weather map
Much of Australia is dealing with a sever drought.
Map courtesy of World Weather Inc. 

El Niño’s global impact

El Niño, of course, has many other negative implications for the world. Normally, El Niño events cut into rainfall in southern Asia from India to the Philippines and Indonesia where significant cuts in palm oil production, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa and other crops often occurs. Nearly all of the region’s agriculture can be affected by El Niño depending on its intensity, and all eyes will be on the phenomenon when it begins to evolve in a few months.

West-central Africa coffee, cocoa, sugarcane and other crop production also is reduced in El Niño events along with Central America, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. Rainfall is normally greater in the middle latitudes in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, which should bode well for Brazil corn and soybean production in 2019, except possibly far southern Brazil where some dryness may evolve in December and January. Argentina weather would also be much improved over the drought of 2018.

In the meantime, world weather is of great interest outside of the areas just mentioned. High pressure ridges have developed or are developing in Western Europe and North America. These ridges could induce some warmer and drier-than-usual weather. Germany and the United Kingdom will be affected first, and by the second week of July they will need significant moisture. France also will dry down, but it is more abundantly wet leading into this dry down period.

Russia’s southern region and neighboring areas of both Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine were enduring a “Sukhovei” in the last days of June. A “Sukhovei” is a hot, dry, wind that blows across the Russian Steppes and can desiccate cropland in a very short period of time. It usually generates wind speeds of 25 to 45 mph with very low humidity and temperatures well above average. Drought already is affecting Russia’s southern region, western Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine, and the Sukhovei will make the situation worse.

In the meantime, India’s monsoon is beginning to perform better after a 10-day break in rainfall that has worried some producers and traders. India is another place, like Australia, that must get abundant rainfall in the next few months prior to the development of El Niño because El Niño eventually suppresses rainfall across the subcontinent. If El Niño begins to evolve late in the third quarter, some late seasonal rainfall may slip below average, but overall crop production this summer should be good as long as rainfall occurs routinely through early September, as expected.

A high-pressure ridge over North America beginning in late June and early July will be closely monitored, but late June rainfall bolstered soil moisture in the U.S. Midwest and that will buy some time before dryness becomes an issue.