There’s ample cause to question just how bad the effect of our latest El Niño weather system could be on our planet – and especially our agricultural system. Is El Niño a reflection of true climate change, or a separate phenomenon? And how significant will El Niño impact global food security?
It’s an old cliché that whenever two or more farmers get together, it takes no more than three minutes before the subject of the weather comes up. But with El Niño’s return, we probably can cut that three minutes at least in half.
What’s El Niño?
There are two weather systems off the coast of South America that dramatically affect the winter and summer weather in the United States: El Niño and La Niña. Both of these are a result of the Pacific Ocean surface temperatures causing tropical rainfall that then changes the weather patterns around the globe. Each event typically occurs approximately every three to five years. They both tend to develop in March through June, peak substantially sometime between December to April, and then weaken from May through July.
The ENSO blog, written by experts who forecast El Niño and La Niña, tell us we’re in the very early stages of another El Niño – the climatic phenomenon that results when waters in key parts of the Pacific Ocean start to warm up abnormally, changing normal atmospheric flows and potentially triggering all sorts of weather extremes.
El Niños are nothing new. We’ve seen them periodically for decades, including some notoriously severe El Niños in 1985, 1997 and 2015. The effects of El Niño extend around the world, with often dramatic – sometimes catastrophic – changes in weather patterns. The worst was the 1982-1983 El Niño that dramatically affected Australia, North & South America, Africa, and Indonesia. For instance, Peru had 11 feet of rain when it normally has 6 inches.
But this time around, the experts are particularly concerned.
The venerable British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) cites weather scientists are “warning there is a good chance that it could be a particularly strong El Niño this year.”
Such strong language may reflect our pre-occupation with global warming and overall climate change. Both have emerged as perennial – maybe “perpetual” is a better word – cause for global concern.
According to NOAA, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and the National Air and Space Administration (NASA), the world remains locked in an undeniable pattern of warmer temperatures. The eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2014, with 2016 the warmest year ever and 2022 clocking in as either the fifth or sixth warmest. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the last El Niño began in 2015.)
What’s more, experts note that these record global temps occurred during an “La Niña” event dating back to 2020. For three years, the Pacific waters have been cooler than normal, leading some observers to question just how bad the temperature levels would have been absent the generally cooling effect of a La Niña on atmospheric patterns.
In simple terms, there’s ample cause to question just how bad the effect of our latest El Niño could be on our planet – and especially our agricultural system.
What exactly does an El Niño do?
In June, NOAA announced evidence that the next El Niño already has begun. As in a typical El Niño event, water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean have been rising, and some experts also note that the area of warmer waters actually has begun expanding to the west.
The phenomenon usually first appears in the waters off Peru and Ecuador, occurring on average every two to five years and typically lasting nine to 12 months, and sometimes longer. This time around, the agency projects an 84 percent likelihood of a “moderate” El Niño and a 56 percent likelihood of a “strong” event. As the BBC report suggests, other experts offer more pessimistic assessments.
The warmer waters change the normal circular patterns governing movement of the upper atmosphere. Warmer waters “push” the overlying air northward faster than normal, altering the jet stream that guides weather systems around the globe. Normal east to west trade winds diminish and sometimes actually cease altogether, with resultant effect on normal cloud cover. Traditional weather patterns change.
The resulting problems come in many forms:
- changed precipitation patterns, and greater risk of either drought or flood;
- extreme temperatures; and
- more dramatic weather events.
But the front lines of the fight against El Niño ’s pernicious effects lie with global agriculture. Farmers and ranchers face yet more uncertainty and enormous complications in managing their crops, flocks and herds.
Experts, however, caution that the complications created by global warming and climate change make such generalizations problematic. One NOAA official observed, “we’re in unprecedented territory.” As an example of the complexity or making predictions, note that hurricane experts acknowledge El Niño ’s dampening effect on the number and severity of hurricanes but nonetheless project a “near-average” hurricane season.
What’s at stake for agriculture?
True optimists hope producers in northern areas will be spared the worst from El Niño, while increased rainfall in other parts of the country might help deal with the lingering effects of drought in some key producing areas. But optimists have been hard to identify since weather agencies made their El Niño pronouncements in early June.
Weather extremes obviously can be devastating for both crop and animal producers. Heat and dry conditions stress crops and animals alike, increasing the need for water and often nutritional and veterinary support. Water supplies and shelter facilities must be managed and maintained more closely than ever. Monitoring of herds and flocks must be stepped up to identify and deal with threats to animal health and well-being generated by the extreme conditions.
Nor are the threats posed by temperature extremes limited to excessive heat and resulting dry conditions. The phenomenon fuels both higher high and lower low temperatures. Risk of damaging frosts and the need to shelter and protect animals from the cold and chill also increase.
More broadly, the added elements of unpredictability generated by El Niño mean farmers and ranchers have to place even more time, money and energy into planning for worst-cased weather scenarios.
Where are the biggest risk areas?
No one who has dealt with previous El Niño s will attempt to predict specifically how the emerging El Niño will play out in each and every agricultural region or situation. But experience and sound science can identify some of the areas most likely to be affected as El Niño continues over the coming months.
Among the areas to watch closely:
El Niño is most likely to trigger drier, warmer weather in the northern United States and Canada, and more and heavier precipitation in the southern United States.
Some optimists argue El Niño could generate more rainfall for key areas of California – a trend that normally would be seen as a positive. But this year’s abundant snowpack and melt might further complicate the water-management challenge for the state. Some observers express similar hopes for the pockets of midwestern drought – but acknowledge the equal risk of seeing dry conditions become even drier.
Australia sits firmly in the historic El Niño bullseye. The 2015-16 event proved especially troublesome for a country that plays a central role in global trade of commodities and diverse food products. Australia’s efforts to step into global markets with abundant wheat and barley crops, for example, played a major role in helping mute the adverse effects of last year’s devastating loss of grain and oilseed supplies from the Black Sea corridor.
Australia exports 80 percent of its wheat, half of its barley and 90 percent of its wool. With more than 25 million head of cattle, the country trails only Brazil as the globe’s largest exporter of beef. By any measure, the country is a major supplier to a hungry world. The 2015-16 El Niño helped drive the fourth-warmest temperatures on record.
With the world’s demand for wheat and other foods still increasing, Australia once again is a major factor in global food security.
Southeast Asia and the western Pacific
Disruptions to the normal monsoons could adversely affect many of the mainstay crops that dominate this region, providing food staples to literally billions of people.
Palm oil, for example, makes up more than half of all the vegetable oils consumed globally. About 60 percent of global palm oil comes from Indonesia; another 29 per cent is grown in nearby Malaysia and Thailand. Rising demand and tight supplies already have led to export restrictions among some major producers. Changes to traditional monsoon patterns and other weather-related complications can only add to the threat of further supply disruptions and drive further market gyrations.
Rice markets face similar concerns. Rice, a staple food for billions, is the second most important cereal crop in the world (behind only corn). Markets look to China, India, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Thailand for 75 percent of total production.
India’s role as a major player in global agriculture often is overlooked. India leads the world in acreage planted to wheat, rice and cotton, and ranks very near the top of global production charts for fruit, vegetables, sugarcane, sugar, rice and cotton. India farmers feed what is soon to become the world’s largest national population (1.5 billion by 2030) – and still export large quantities of the essential commodities sought by global customers.
China and Brazil
Both countries are critical elements of the global food system, both as exporters of commodities and food products. El Niño projections place China largely outside the areas expected to be most affected by weather events tied to El Niño.
Scientists also predict the worst of the potential “dry” conditions affecting Brazil will fall in the northern part of the country, which trails the southern areas as key agricultural producing regions. Brazilian produces soybeans, sugar cane, corn, cotton, beef and other commodities and food products – many of which should continue to compete aggressively in what could become an even tighter market supply picture.
But the same experts caution that specific abnormal weather events may occur nonetheless across the globe as a result of El Niño, especially when coupled with overall global warming patterns. El Niño only adds to the weather and climate challenges facing today’s global food system.
What does all this mean for the food consumer?
The losses imposed by El Niño are far from inconsequential. Experts measure their economic costs in the trillion of dollars — on average around $3.4 trillion, and as much as $5.7 trillion from the severe 1997-98 El Niño. Those costs ripple through national economies – with consumers ultimately paying their share.
The Bottom Line
To many observers, the larger concerns surrounding El Niño in 2023 involve its relationship to the larger matter of climate change. Experts will be watching closely to find out as quickly as possible. In the meanwhile, we all will need to keep a close eye on the weather – everywhere.