El Niño Update

Here is a climate update from UGA Extension Climatologist Pam Knox:

If you’ve been following the news this year, you already know that we are in the middle of one of the strongest El Niños since the 1950s.  An El Niño is a climate event related to a weakening of the trade winds in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the movement of sun-warmed surface water eastward towards the coasts of Peru and Ecuador.  Thunderstorms that develop over the warm water divert the subtropical jet to the north. 

In this year’s El Niño, the jet has pushed one storm after another across the Florida peninsula as well as Alabama and Georgia, leading to unusually wet conditions across many areas.  Normally, when we have an El Niño, our temperatures are cooler than normal due to the extra-cloudy conditions.  However, this (past) December was way above normal in temperature when Arctic air that normally makes it down to the Southeast, got trapped near the poles.  Since the beginning of January, our temperatures have returned to more normal winter conditions.

What is next for El Niño? 

It looks like the warming is near its peak, as expected, and the predictions are for a rapid decline to neutral conditions.  This could occur by late spring but are more likely in early summer.  And after that?  Five of the last six strong El Niños have swung to the opposite phase, a La Niña. This could occur by mid- to late summer.

What does this mean for peanut growers in the Southeast?

Continuing rains from the current El Niño are likely to give us ample soil moisture going into the spring.  This may cause problems getting into some fields that are prone to wet conditions.  The first part of the summer should have plenty of rain.  However, once the La Niña kicks in, drier than normal conditions are expected all the way through fall.  That will help with harvest but might make drought more likely.

The one wild-card in this forecast is the effect of tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean basin.  La Niñas are often associated with above-normal number of Atlantic hurricanes.  If you are in the path of one of those storms, you could see a lot of rain even if the storm is not that strong.  But it’s far too early to predict where those storms are likely to go, so plan for dry conditions later in the summer unless a storm heads for your farm.

The La Niña is likely to last through next winter, which means warmer and drier conditions may occur next November through March.

If you want to see the impacts of El Niño and La Niña on peanut production, you can use http://www.agroclimate.org and view maps of peanut yield by El Niño phase.

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