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Corn Belt to See El Niño Turn Into La Niña, Meteorologist Says

DES MOINES, Iowa (— The coffee shops and elevator lobbies have been buzzing this week ever since the weather experts leaked word that the current El Niño weather pattern could flip to a La Niña.

El Niño, a weather pattern that has been associated with droughts in the past, can develop into La Niña, a pattern that can mean wetter conditions for the Midwest.

Though it doesn’t happen often, all signals indicate the weather phenomenons could be making the flip later this year.

Farmers want to know how this could impact this spring’s planting season or even the growing season.

Dan Hicks, Freese-Notis Weather meteorologist, agrees the weather models show a strong El Niño in the tropical Pacific, but it has weakened some since peaking last November and December.  

“All indications are that strong El Niño conditions will continue into late winter, with a gradual weakening this spring to neutral conditions by midyear.   

Hicks adds, “It is not uncommon to see a swing from El Niño to La Niña, but at this time it looks like if we do go to a significant La Niña, it may not come until the second half of the year,” Hicks says.

The latest long-range models are mixed with some showing neutral conditions into later this year, and some are showing transition to La Niña, he says.  

“Based on how things look today, I would say that chances for a significant La Niña by this summer are low, with higher chances later in the year,” says the Des Moines, Iowa, based weather specialist.

Historical perspective
Conditions in the Tropical Pacific over the past several months have most closely followed the trends of the El Niños of 1982-83 and 1997-98, according to Freese-Notis Inc. research data.

“These are the two strongest El Niños since 1950, with the current El Niño ranking similar to the stronger of the two in 97-98. Winter weather in the U.S. so far has shown some fairly significant differences to these previous winters, however,” Hicks says.

In both 1983 and 1998, the strong El Niño weakened during spring, transitioning to neutral conditions by summer of 83 and to weak La Niña by summer of '98, weather records show. Among other years since 1950, following a winter with a strong El Niño, the El Niño conditions nearly always weakened, but the conditions in the Tropical Pacific later in these years vary widely, he says.

“It is difficult to find consistency in spring weather trends among these years. My thought on spring (March to May) precipitation at this time is trend for near-to-above normal amounts from the Midwest into the Southeast, with some below-normal amounts in the northern Plains and in Texas and bordering areas,” Hicks says.  

Spring temperatures could be near- to above-normal in the Northern U.S., and a few degrees below normal Central into Southern areas, Freese-Notis reports.

“One thing about this year is that total soil moisture in the top 5 feet or so of soil is well above normal in many parts of the Central and Southeastern U.S. This would likely make early spring progress in fieldwork and planting even more sensitive to above-normal precipitation than in most years,” Hicks says.

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