Big Bad Baby

Just how much El Nino will affect your local weather remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The phenomenon is real, and it will affect worldwide livestock production and economics.It could also dramatically change weather cycles for the next year or more in your region of the U.S., with increases or decreases in rain or snowfall being most influential on beef producers. That will include producers

Just how much El Nino will affect your local weather remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The phenomenon is real, and it will affect worldwide livestock production and economics.

It could also dramatically change weather cycles for the next year or more in your region of the U.S., with increases or decreases in rain or snowfall being most influential on beef producers. That will include producers who rely on pasture or rangeland conditions, as well as feeders who rely on commodity feeds.

Predicting El Nino 's Effects So what might happen this winter and spring? BEEF contacted several regional offices of the National Weather Service to find out. In general, the southern parts of the nation should be warmer and wetter than normal, and the northern parts should be warmer and drier. "The winter of onset (1997-98) and the spring following are going to be wetter than normal in the Southeast," says Mike Helfert, director of the Southeast Regional Climate Center in Columbia, SC. He's talking about an area from Virginia down into Florida. "We see an increase (in precipitation) of around 10 percent."

Of course, he's speaking of potential, but he sees that potential based on past history. He says there could be an average of two more rainy days each month during that period. Obviously, some areas could see huge rain or snow increases, and others little or none. "People will really stand up and take notice this winter," Helfert says. He adds that temperatures are more difficult to predict than precipitation. So far, the pattern is holding. This past summer the Southeast was drier than usual, which also verifies the onset of an El Nino effect.

Benefits For Producers Oddly enough, U.S. agriculture should be able to benefit from El Ninos. A report published this year by scientists and economists from several institutions claims that $240-323 million in increased agricultural value can be realized from this El Nino if farmers act on the knowledge that it is coming.

Rodney Weiher of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also a contributor to the report. He says the benefits accrue to producers and consumers alike. The range of figures is based on whether farmers make skillful use of El Nino predictions or not.

Cow-calf operators in the South, for example, could expect increased pasture and range grass production and act accordingly. Feeders in the north could expect warmer winter feeding conditions.

Some Effects On Prices Another contributor to the report, Bruce McCarl, an ag economist with Texas A&M, has worked with graduate student Chia-Chung Chen to look more closely at effects of past El Ninos on livestock as background for the above report.

"Beef yearling price goes down a bit, about $1," McCarl says of the historical figures. "Calf price is up about 25 cents. Hay prices show a small rise."

Corn prices typically go to $2.79, as opposed to $2.07 under normal conditions. That could have a large effect on feeders' economics.

Livestock producers in general should take obvious physical precautions based on predictions of weather change. In the southern half of the nation, for example, this includes improving feedlot drainage, stocking and covering feeds, and weatherproofing homes. In some areas of Southern California, for example, it's difficult to hire a roofer due to demand from people heeding the wet weather forecasts.

El Nino And The Jet Streams An El Nino affects the jets streams that flow across the U.S. from west to east. True to form, they prevented much of the Southeast from getting the normal summer storms -- which originate in Africa.

"We can't get a thunderstorm in conditions like that," Helfert says. It led to reduced crop yields in his area, with farmers hurrying to get the harvest in before predicted rains began. El Ninos are typically a breeding ground for Pacific hurricanes (and a deterrent to Atlantic hurricanes), and Helfert says that pattern is also holding true. There were 10 Pacific hurricanes by October.

"It has popped one of these hurricanes every 10 days," he points out, and some hurricanes such as Olaf dissolved and were reborn several times -- an unheard-of phenomenon in normal years. The heavy rains in East Texas and flooding in Acapulco in early fall were a good indication that El Nino was already chugging out water.

Ken Kunkel, director of the Midwest Regional Climate Center in Champaign, IL, says El Nino should mean two things for producers in an area from Minnesota and Wisconsin across to Iowa and Kentucky. "The Upper Midwest is particularly likely to be warmer in the winter during El Nino events," Kunkel says. "The farther north you go, the more significant that could be."

He's also predicting, based on past performance, that Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan will get "below-level" snowfall -- perhaps half of normal.

But it's not as likely that Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri will have reduced snowfall. Cold air in Alaska and Canada, where Midwest winter storms originate, should dip down farther eastward than normal during El Nino . That cold air normally doesn't have as much moisture in it as warmer air coming from the south.

At the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, NV, chief meteorologist Kelly Redmond says California should feel the first effects of anticipated rainfall. That weather will extend westward more or less straight across the country.

It Starts In California "As a broad generalization, we see a swath of wet conditions extending through Southern California, south Nevada, Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, a little of southern Colorado, and on eastward to Texas," he says.

There's an opposite behavior in the northern half of the West, Redmond adds, with Washington to Montana being drier than normal.

But in looking at data from 12 past El Ninos , Redmond says the chancy nature of the phenomenon is revealed in some oddities. For example, the Pacific Northwest should be dry during the winter and spring, but Oregon's records show an actual increase in rainfall during past El Ninos .

In addition, the High Plains states have a very mixed reaction to the phenomenon. Effects are spotty, and precipitation levels could go strongly either way. The data say that in late spring there is a region from Nebraska south to Oklahoma and northern Texas that gets a maximum amount of moisture.

Redmond says this El Nino, if it performs as expected, could be a relief to much of the West because some northern areas have experienced excess rainfall during the last year, and they should be drier this winter. Parts of the West that need water, such as southern Arizona, should get very wet.

He adds that El Nino not only produces more total rainfall, but also more rainy days.

"The results of this are really magnified," he says, pointing out that the effects on rangelands could be very beneficial. Redmond emphasizes, as all the scientists do, that none of these potentialities are hard and fast predictions. "There are some El Ninos that have been drier in Southern California," he notes.

El Nino And The World Picture Agricultural economics can change drastically during an El Nino , often for the worst. That's because its weather patterns are contrary to the normal, which can damage crops. Doug Le Comte, chief of the National Weather Service's ag division, says the total worldwide damages from the 1982-83 El Nino were $10-13 billion. A sizeable portion of that was agricultural, he says.

Le Comte says the effects of El Nino on other continents can be severe. Australia, for example, usually has drought in its eastern grain-growing regions, though that hasn't held true so far this year. Eastern Australia had good rains in September.

South America, like the U.S., has mixed effects. The big cattle producing regions of the southern countries tend to be wetter and warmer from November through February, which could bring good feed conditions. But, the northern countries and Central America tend to be drier than normal.

"We're already starting to see heavy rains in southern Brazil," Le Comte said in October. Effects in Mexico are difficult to predict, though the northern states should be wetter than normal.

Africa, from Southern Zambia southward, should be wetter than normal during El Nino years, and Europe "has no strong links" to the phenomenon. Southern and Southeast Asia are supposed to have below-normal rainfall, but that effect has not been seen yet this year.

El Nino And Global Warming In addressing the causes of El Nino , Dan Cayan was asked if this was part of a global warming trend. "That's unclear," says the director of the Climate Research Division of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA, and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey.

But, he points out that El Ninos are entirely normal events that help drive the planet's weather. Three centuries of records indicate El Ninos are a normal part of planetary weather patterning.

But he adds that this particular El Nino is a very big child indeed. The water off the entire West Coast of the U.S. is warmer than normal, and the big vat of warm Pacific water extends all the way from the South American coast all the way to the international dateline.

"Potentially, across the U.S., get ready for a real active winter," Cayan warns.

In Spanish, El Nino means "the little baby" and is a reference to the Christ child. It was so named by fishermen off the coast of South America because the weather phenomenon tends to occur around Christmas.

El Nino is a naturally occurring but irregular climate cycle born in the Pacific Ocean. Warmer than normal surface waters -- a huge pool of it that currently is up to 10 degrees warmer than normal in some parts -- shift from one sector of the ocean to the other. That pool of hot water is currently farther north and east than during normal El Ninos . In fact, it's off the west coast of Mexico.

Called the second largest factor in worldwide weather patterns (next to the seasons), El Nino 's waters force changes in oceanic and atmospheric conditions and weather patterns. It produces a huge concentration of tropical rainfall which affects the frequency, severity and direction of storms in the Pacific. That, in turn, can make both the monsoons of India and the winter flooding in California much more severe than usual, and Pacific waters on the South American coast are a foot higher than normal due to the increased mass of the warm water.

In the summer following an El Nino , the effects are usually just the opposite. If it's warm and wet in the winter, it's often dry and cool the next summer. That effect has been dubbed either "La Nina" (the little girl) or "El Viejo" (the old man) by the scientific community. There have been three outlandishly large El Ninos in this century: 1905-06, 1972-73, and 1982-83. Even the last of these could not be predicted. But today, with a lot of data now coming from satellites, ocean buoy sensors and other sources, computer models have been built that forecast potentially severe climatological changes from this El Nino .

"Oh yeah, it's real," says Dan Cayan when asked if all the hoopla about El Nino is justified. Director of the Climate Research Division of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA, and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, Cayan explains that, statistically, weather from El Nino is just as much an odds game as at any other time. But, he adds, the odds are about double that the Southwest U.S., for example, will see the kinds of weather associated with the worst El Ninos of history -- including intense rain and snowfall during the winter and early spring.

"This is not cast in concrete," Cayan says. In fact, the probabilities are that the El Nino that started in spring of 1997 will die out in spring of 1998 and lead to a colder and drier winter in the southern part of the country next winter.