Another El Nino Already?

Published on: 15:40PM Apr 03, 2019

In mid-February of this year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that it had detected a distinct rise in ocean temperature in the Western Pacific, heralding the arrival of another El Nino this spring.  Experts had been speculating for months that an El Nino episode might occur in 2019, only four years after the most recent severe El Nino that hit in 2015-16.


While originally forecast by the WMO  to be only a modest El Nino episode, the massive Midwest flooding over the last few weeks, as well as recent heavy storms and cyclones elsewhere in the world causing more flooding suggests that the 2019 episode may persist longer and wreak more damage than originally anticipated.


Having only a three-year gap between successive El Nino episodes is unusual by historical standards.  While the research is not yet conclusive, evidence suggests that recent ENSO episodes (both El Nino and La Nina) are more variable and more intense than has been the norm, and that the heat added to the global ocean system through climate change may be responsible.  For example, one study has found that for every additional 1 degree Centigrade in global warming, 7 percent more moisture is retained in the atmosphere, making more water available for large storms.


Since the beginning of 2019, there has been massive flooding experienced in nearly every region of the world--in Italy, Bosnia, and Peru in February, in Australia, Iran, and several Southern African countries in March, and of course the massive flooding in the U.S. Midwest that started in March but is still going on in early April.  The Southern Africa flooding was caused by the Cyclone Idai, which barreled into Madagascar, Mozambique, Mali, and Zimbabwe in mid-March, killing at least 900 people.  The storm had sustained winds of 105 miles per hour when it made landfall, equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.  Hundreds of cases of cholera are now being reported in the affected region in the wake of the storm.


In the ongoing Midwest flooding, so far six states have been adversely affected so far--Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois.  However, the flood water is still making its way down the Mississippi and Missouri river system and states in the southern end of the river basin may yet be affected.


The initial Midwest flooding was caused by a so-called ‘bomb cyclone,’ a massive inland storm system that dropped snow and rain from west Texas to northern Minnesota in mid-March.  Within that storm, high winds persisted for days, dropping more than a foot of snow in parts of Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas.  Along the eastern edge of the storm, the precipitation fell in the form of rain, totalling 1 to 3 inches in Nebraska.


That rain, combined with rapid melting of the winter’s substantial snowfall, much of which was still on the ground in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, were the factors that led to the initial stages of massive flooding.  Ice jams created by blocks of ice that were pulled into the rushing waters of the Missouri and tributary rivers only made the situation worse.  Several towns in the region were totally cut off as many major roads were flooded and damaged, rendered unusable even after the waters receded. Several Indian reservations in western South Dakota were cut off by the massive snowfall from the storm as well, and water main breaks led to a loss of access to clean drinking water for several days.


Even as the states try to clean up from the March flooding, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in late March that the risk of additional flooding would persist in the region until May, especially if the El Nino effect does not weaken by that time as originally forecast by the WMO.


While spring planting does not usually occur in the Midwest for several more weeks, the farmland inundated by the March floods may not have recovered in time for planting to occur on time.  In Iowa alone, it is estimated that 416,000 acres of farmland were flooded in six counties in the western portion of the state.


Beyond the potential disruption of spring planting on millions of acres in the affected region, especially if the NOAA forecast of additional flooding is realized, farmers are facing additional losses from recent flooding.  Due to the low price environment that farmers faced after the fall harvest, exacerbated by the U.S. trade war with China and other major agricultural importers, more farmers than usual chose to hold onto substantial amounts of grain in on-farm storage to await improved prices.  In the flooded regions, many of the grain storage facilities were damaged by floodwater, and the commodities they contained were ruined.  One ag tech company estimates that there are more than 800 grain silos on farms in the flooded region, likely holding between five and ten million bushels of corn and soybeans.  These products are no longer covered by the federal crop insurance program since they have already been harvested, and are uninsured unless they are included in the farm’s property and casualty insurance policy.


Congress has been debating various bills that would provide financial assistance to farmers affected by recent Midwest flooding, as well as farmers affected by last fall’s hurricanes in the U.S. Southeast.  However, that legislation has been held up over disagreement on how much federal assistance to provide to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.