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La Niña Stays Strong

February 4, 2011

Some of the worst droughts in recent memory have coincided with La Niña conditions. With supplies of most major commodities already tight, a strong to moderate La Niña in the Pacific Ocean and record-high grain prices, anxiety about severely tight supplies is rising by the day. However, these concerns might be premature, says John Eise, climate services program manager for the National Weather Service in Kansas City, Mo.

In a recent update, the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) said that La Niña should continue well into the spring. Current models show drier conditions prevailing in the Southwest and stretching into the western Great Plains. Wetter-than-normal springtime conditions are expected in the Ohio River Valley and Great Lakes Region, Eise says.

He adds that right now there is no definitive prediction of a repeat of the conditions that occurred in 1983 and 1988, both of which were severe drought years.

la nina"I am not willing to go that far out," Eise says. "There are other things besides La Niña that impact the weather. As far as temperatures, yes, we’re leaning a bit warmer than normal extending from the Southwest through Texas and the Gulf Coast. It should extend north into the Southern Plains."

CPC is willing to predict that La Niña will continue into the spring months. Whether it will survive through the growing season is a little less clear.

"Some models are showing weakening, but others are showing it fairly strong into the summer months. I would expect we’ll see it weaken, but we don’t necessarily see it disappearing in the summer months," Eise says.

The Weather Ahead. A recent poll asked: What’s the worst Christmas present agriculture could receive this year? Of the four choices (no ethanol tax credit, a record crop in South America, a drought from La Niña or something else) a drought from La Niña received the highest number of votes: nearly half of the 620 votes.

"You always have anxiety when you have a La Niña in the winter. It doesn’t cause a drought, but it is associated with drought," says Elwynn Taylor, a climatologist with Iowa State University Extension.

What’s concerning weather experts is the similarity between the current La Niña and the one that occurred in 1974, a year that featured a late spring frost, a very dry summer and an early frost.
But there’s always a chance the destructive weather pattern will lessen and not repeat its previous damage.

"We don’t know if La Niña will still be here in April," Taylor says. "It has showed some signs of weakening in recent months."

Some worry that the current La Niña will produce hotter and drier conditions for the central U.S. this summer, says Allen Motew of QT Weather. However, the latest indications are that ocean temperatures are warming, which means La Niña could disappear early in the summer, Motew says.

Regardless, all models say La Niña will continue for the next several months. "After April, though, all bets are off," Motew adds.

Sara Schafer contributed to this article.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - February 2011

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