The wait for El Niño is on. Most computer forecast models continue to suggest an El Niño event will begin evolving in September and it may be a significant event for a few months during the heart of the Northern Hemisphere winter. This year already has been an interesting year for crop weather with drought still lingering in Europe, and dryness from eastern Ukraine into Russia’s Volga River Basin and in Canada’s Prairies.
The most interesting areas of dryness, however, are those of eastern Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia and lighter-than-usual rainfall in parts of India and the Philippines. These areas of less-than-usual rainfall in recent weeks have occurred without El Niño and there are no immediate indications of El Niño developing for a while. But with the prospects of El Niño still looming, there is a growing fear that drought could be more serious in the next few months as El Niño evolves if there is no significant relief soon.
World Weather, Inc. believes that some much needed rain will develop erratically in eastern Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of India in the next few weeks. Most of the rain expected, however, is likely to be lighter than usual. The precipitation will be extremely important since without it the ground in each of these areas could already be too low on moisture long before El Niño begins. El Niño events restrict moisture from reaching each of these areas and at a time when the ground is already dry, the situation could lead to some greater production cuts for some crops.
Winter wheat, barley and canola will begin reproducing in September and that adds some pressure to the need for significant rain. Queensland is not nearly as important a player in winter crop production in Australia as New South Wales. Queensland produces 3% of the nation’s barley and 6% of the nation’s wheat in a normal year while no significant canola comes from the state. That contrasts with New South Wales, where 20% of the barley, 29% of the wheat and 31% of the canola is produced.
Southern portions of New South Wales wheat, barley and canola production areas were not nearly as dry as the north was in the late April through early August period, and crops in those areas will outperform those in the drier northern production areas. It will be of critical importance that rain falls in the next few weeks to support the best yield potentials in Queensland and northern New South Wales.
Some rain fell across east-central Australia’s dry region Aug. 23-25 that brought a little relief, but much more rain is needed to ensure the best possible reproductive conditions in September.
A similar situation has plagued Indonesia in recent weeks. The nation’s archipelago produces sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, corn, rice, rubber, tea and, of course, a huge amount of the world’s palm oil (among other commodities). Portions of Indonesia have received less than half of normal rainfall since mid-July and soil moisture is quite limited in central and southern Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and western portions of Kalimantan. Short-rooted crops in Indonesia already have experienced some increasing crop stress in recent weeks because of limited rain and seasonably warm temperatures. However, deep-rooted crops like coconut, palm, rubber, pineapple and banana trees have not felt any impact from the dryness because of much better soil moisture down deep into the ground.
The deep-rooted crops in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines would not likely be affected by significant moisture stress unless dryness lasts for a few months. Developing El Niño events usually do just that. They deplete soil moisture due to restricted rainfall and warm temperatures over multiple months and the impact is usually greatest several months after the dryness begins at a time when subsoil moisture finally becomes significantly restricted. Having dryness already in the soil now raises the potential for production cuts to come earlier in 2019 than would have otherwise occurred had the past few weeks of dryness not evolved.
In the case of India, summer monsoonal rainfall this year has been timely in most of the nation, leaving crop moisture favorably rated. However, total rainfall reported since June 1 has been below average from Gujarat through northern Madhya Pradesh to the lower Ganges River Basin. This region produces soybeans, peanuts, rice, corn, sorghum and a small amount of sugarcane. The timeliness of rainfall reported across India so far this summer has been sufficient to support crop development, but if El Niño begins evolving in September there might be a premature withdrawal of seasonal rainfall that could have a negative impact on production if there is no bolstering of soil moisture prior to the start of El Niño evolution.
Next few weeks crucial
Weather patterns in each of these important southern Asian and eastern Australia locations during the next few weeks will not be influenced by El Niño. That opens the door of opportunity for more “normal” weather to impact the region for a little while. “Normal” weather might bring timely rainfall to India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and eastern Australia. Most likely, “normal” weather will not evolve, but these areas should receive a few very important bouts of rain in the next few weeks that may help ease dryness and support some short-term crop development.
The importance of the next few weeks of shower opportunity cannot be overstated. Any rain that falls will have much to say about the overall health of crops and the ability for crops in the region to deal with early season El Niño dryness. An absence of rain or well below average precipitation will lead to greater crop stress and a larger threat to production for many crops grown in southern Asia and eastern Australia, whereas timely rain that is periodically quite significant can greatly improve eastern Australia winter grain and oilseed production potential.
In the meantime, mid-latitude droughts in Europe, Ukraine, Russia and Canada will likely be eased as summer winds down and autumn begins.
Seasonal cooling of the atmosphere will break down the various blocking weather patterns responsible for dryness in each of these areas. That should bring an end to chronic dryness and raise the potential for improving soil moisture.
Unfortunately for these mid-latitude locations, it is probably too late to fully recover production potentials for summer coarse grain and oilseeds, but the moisture will have much to say about planting conditions for winter wheat, barley and rye.