El Nino, Where Did You Go?

Sudden disappearance of El Nino raises concern about possibility of drought in 2007 growing season.

Weather experts are scratching their heads over the disappearance of El Nino this month. El Nino is a phenomenon that occurs with the warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean. It affects weather patterns in the U.S. Corn Belt. The current El Nino is diminishing in January 2007. It is going away, having only lasted since the past July 11 - which is when it began.

"That's only about 6 months of duration for this El Nino," notes Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist. "Normally with an El Nino event, when it occurs, it lasts over a year. During an El Nino year you have favorable weather--normal temperatures and precipitation - during the growing season. That would produce good yields in the U.S. Corn Belt."

Currently, with El Nino ceasing, we're in a neutral situation. However, when El Nino ceases and the opposite of El Nino occurs, which is called La Nina, that could create summertime drought conditions. "If we drift into a La Nina situation this year - La Nina is when the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean suddenly cool - we would have problems with crop yields in 2007," says Taylor.

This El Nino has faded fast

Normally it takes awhile for El Nino to form and also for it to go away. But this one isn't behaving normally. "The El Nino we've had the past six months seems to be going away now. We'll be keeping an eye on what happens for clues to what type of weather we'll likely have this coming growing season," he says.

What about winter weather? El Nino is a warming of the Pacific Ocean waters causing weather in the United States to be unusually warm during winter, and results in a good growing season the next summer. What worries Taylor is that the sudden early disappearance of El Nino in January 2007 is similar to what happened in 1983. That year a La Nina went into effect with cooler-than-normal Pacific Ocean waters and it caused widespread drought.

Iowa without a corn crop?

With the rapidly rising demand for corn to feed the growing number of ethanol plants being built in Iowa and across the nation, corn prices have already climbed to near record levels. What would happen to Iowa's economy and all these new ethanol plants if the state's corn crop was suddenly devastated by a drought?

Bruce Babcock, economist with the Center for Ag and Rural Development at Iowa State University, says corn prices would soar and ethanol plants would close. But the worst case scenario would be a big sell off of the state's livestock industry. "In the worst case scenario the state's livestock numbers would be reduced drastically," says Babcock. "An ethanol plant could always be shutdown and restarted. All that means is a temporary loss of cash flow - a temporary shutdown of an ethanol plant wouldn't mean any permanent damage."

Before the year 2007 is over with, we may find out if Iowa can sustain corn production and have enough corn for livestock and ethanol at a reasonable price. If the corn price goes too high, ethanol plants will cease production until the price of corn drops, says Babcock.

TAGS: Extension
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