Renewable Farming

El Niño reversal into LaNiña will load odds for wet Spring, dry Autumn

If the current El Niño fades and reverses normally to its opposite cycle, the 2016 growing season in the Midwest will likely start wet and end with a dry autumn. Just how early the dryness sets in can’t be predicted. But the safest crop management strategy is to plan for it — and look for every means of keeping corn green and alive into September and early October. That would be major victory compared to the early “die-down” we’ve seen the past several years.

Each season, the “early death syndrome” in corn has crept forward a few days. This year’s corn yield contest winners stress that they do everything they can to keep cornstalks green, and chlorophyll pumping nutrients into kernels, as long as they can.

Here’s some background on what’s driving the bizarre weather in North America this fall and winter.

The long-lasting El Niño has warmed equatorial sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific (see image below). That’s sending surges of moisture into the far West, Midwest and Southern United States. 

But there’s another little-reported force at work in North America’s winter weather: A vast, unusual cold pool of North Atlantic water almost as large as the 48 states is blocking normal flows of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. Few weather reports or climatologists have mentioned this barrier, and there’s no official explanation of how it chilled. However, authors of the Browning World Climate Bulletin observe that the frigid sea, which extends more than halfway to the European coast, is downwind of a massive eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland. This is a volcano beneath a glacier, which erupts over a wide area rather than from a crater.

Exploding in August 2014, it blasted 20,000 to 60,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the lower atmosphere every day for six months. The aerosol particles shaded a huge region of the North Atlantic. This could have been the cause of creating a frigid barrier of chilled water which forced the Gulf Stream to whirl against the Eastern Seaboard. Note, in the sea surface map below, the unusually warm water hugging the coastline from New England all the way to Labrador.

Result: More than 6,000 high-temperature records were broken in December in Eastern states. Many areas saw temps 30 degrees above normal. 

Frigid air above the pool of cold North Atlantic water anchors a low pressure area, which steers the jet stream farther north than it normally would in early winter.

Thus the U.S. has been trapped between two opposing forces — a high-energy, warm equatorial pool of Pacific Ocean to our west, and a frigid zone of air and North Atlantic ocean to our east.

The global atmosphere always attempts to achieve balance, and explosive storms across the American midsection are a response. Flooding on the lower Mississippi River has set records beyond the catastrophe of 1993. 

Sea surface temperature anomalies worldwide, showing the “cold pool” in the North Atlantic


That massive red band of Pacific Ocean water, shown in red in the sea surface temperature anomaly map above, will at some point reverse as atmospheric pressures switch between the eastern and western Pacific.  Ocean waters off South America will cool and the La Niña cycle will begin. 

However, the pair of powerful forces at work make timing of the reversal impossible to calculate. The Browning newsletter authors observe that “We have not seen this scenario in centuries.”  The closest comparisons are the winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98, they say.

Over many years, we’ve learned to respect the Browning authors’ analysis. We knew the originator of the Browning Letter, Iben Browning, and interviewed him several times. He, with his daughter Evelyn, authored several books on climate change and its impact on human activities. 

Iben documented that over the many epochs of warmer and cooler climate, the warm decades and centuries always proved the most prosperity and peace. Cooling ages led to conflict and hunger, with war and turmoil among humanity.  His scientific foundation also equipped him to be rather bemused at the “Global Warming” mantra — that humans have some significant impact on climate.

“Our computer climate models have always been most accurate when we ignore the presence of mankind,” Iben often said.

Further, the El Niño / Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle has been tracked in detail for only about 50 years. So there isn’t a strong statistical base from which to make predictions. We first began following the cycles back in the early 1990s.  In fact, below is part of an article we published in LandOwner Newsletter in March of 1995. 

A 1995 LandOwner Newsletter report on El Niño