By Julia Debes
For audio file and photos, visit www.kansaswheat.org.
From fishermen in Peru to wheat farmers in Kansas, a shifting weather pattern is the single largest influence on any crop. The rains that fell across the state in May brought new life to the wheat crop that was recently harvested and spotted delays during cutting. And, after years of drought conditions, farmers can reasonably expect more of that moisture to continue, thanks to the official El Niño pattern declared in April, according to Mary Knapp, state climatologist with Kansas State University.
Observing El Niño
By definition, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will declare an El Niño has started when the sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are one half degree Celsius warmer than normal for five consecutive three-month periods. While one half of a degree seems small, Knapp explained to heat up the entire surface of the Pacific Ocean, which covers one third of Earth’s surface, that requires a lot of heat.
The result of this warming was first documented in the 1880s by fishermen off the coast of Peru. The differing temperatures brought different sized fish, meaning warmer seas attracted small fish that could slip through nets intended for larger fish. As scientists learned more, these changing sea temperatures corresponded with barometric pressure anomalies and shifting wind patterns.
Only in the last 25 to 30 years, however, have researchers started associating this El Niño phenomenon with disruptions in global weather patterns, according to Knapp. This effort is now assisted by array buoys in the ocean that transmit data in real time.
Bueno for Kansas Farmers, Not for Competitors
As Knapp explained, an El Niño event generally means wetter-than-normal conditions for Kansas, including more moisture in summer months and milder-than-normal winters, especially for the southern tier of counties. This El Niño was declared in April, later than typical according to Knapp, and Kansas did see substantial rains throughout May as the rising moisture from Gulf of Mexico mixed with cold fronts.
Knapp said if the El Niño pattern persists, then most of Kansas will continue to receive more moisture throughout the rest of summer and into the fall. However, states further north like South Dakota and North Dakota are likely to see drier than average conditions.
While beneficial here in Kansas, Knapp explained that for competitors across the world, an El Niño can signal drier than normal conditions, especially for the Black Sea, China and Canada. Areas closer to the coast are impacted more by El Niño, Knapp said, making countries like Australia especially susceptible to these dry conditions.
But as Knapp explained, “No two El Niños behave in exactly the same manner.” As a result, these observations are trends, not guarantees.
Long Lasting Potential
Indications that Kansas will continue to receive more moisture than normal look positive at this point. Knapp pointed out that of the 16 dynamical and nine statistical models researchers use to determine an El Niño, none predict a quick end to the El Niño. In fact, according to NOAA on July 18, forecasters report there is more than a 90 percent chance that the El Niño pattern will continue through the winter of 2015-16 and about 80 percent chance into spring.
Farmers recently harvested better than expected wheat in many fields thanks to that May moisture, even if the rain also brought foliar diseases and hail events in many places. And, with El Niño predicted to continue for the months ahead, Kansas farmers may see even more rain drops for next year’s crop. Either way, El Niño is a phenomenon to watch.
Check out NOAA’ s official El Niño portal at http://www.elnino.noaa.gov/ for more information and regular reports on El Niño conditions.