Brazil's weather goes upside down as rain pours down

by Drew Lerner
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Worry over restricted rainfall quickly switched to concern over too much moisture.

KANSAS CITY — The most exciting part of being a meteorologist is the power of nature and its ability to switch from one extreme to another in the “bat of an eye.” The start of January in Brazil looked just like most of December with portions of northern Brazil crying for greater rainfall while too much rain was impacting the south. Seemingly overnight, the pattern reversed and within a short few days portions of center south Brazil were becoming too wet, and worry over restricted rainfall quickly switched to concern over too much moisture.

Despite the worries of climate change, weather is really quite cyclical, and what goes around seems to come around again. Typically, with strong El Niño events in South America there is a transition of weather that seems to occur often in late December and January. That transition seems to take a very wet pattern in southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and northeastern Argentina during the spring and first weeks of summer, and changes the pattern to one of net drying. Similarly, a struggling weather pattern generating below normal rainfall in northern Brazil tends to give way to much wetter conditions in this transitional time period. That is exactly what took place in the past couple of weeks. Climate change “experts” were quick to tell us that the unusual dry in northern Brazil this spring and excessive rains in the south were a byproduct of climate change, and just how many more days will go by before the flooding that impacts Brazil gets blamed on the same phenomenon.

The reality is we have been here before, and it does not take much searching into the record books to see it. In fact, even though this El Niño event has been different from some of the others of the past their general evolution and demise seem quite consistent. And while we are on the subject matter let’s be clear that this year’s El Niño was not the “Godzilla” event that it was predicted to be. It actually turns out that the predicted strongest El Niño on record was a close second to the record earlier last year, and it now ranks third out of all El Niños since 1950. Need it be said….”me thinks thou doth protest too much.”

These comments are made using the more inclusive Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI), but it is true for a while sea surface temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean were at record levels for a few short weeks, but the impact on South America and much of the world has not been any more severe than that of 1997-98 or 1982-83.

That previous comment may be a matter of opinion depending on who you speak to. Flooding in Brazil has been serious in a few areas and drought in South Africa was horrific for many areas in the nation, but Australian farmers are beaming with delight in counting their money this year when they were supposed to get very little crop due to drought. Drought was serious in Southeast Asia and that drought has eased across Indonesia and Malaysia recently, although more rain is needed.

The pattern in Brazil has been quite impressive recently, and areas that were going through a part of December with less than an inch of rain now are trying to find a place to put all of the moisture. Despite the ramblings here there are some problems in the world of agriculture and they may fester for a while.

Drought in South Africa apparently reached a seasonal peak (as it often does in El Niño summers) during the last days of December and first days of January. A near daily occurrence of showers and thunderstorms now is occurring, providing some relief to a long spring of suffering from heat and moisture deficits.

South Africa may be seeing an improving trend, but the situation in North Africa has not changed much. In fact, durum wheat production areas in Morocco and northwestern Algeria are still suffering from dry conditions. Some crops in Morocco were not planted, and those that were planted have emerged and established poorly. Other areas in northern Africa also experienced a big decline in rainfall during December and the first days of January resulting in fears of expanding drought that would threaten a larger part of durum wheat country. The situation was further complicated by ongoing dryness in eastern Spain, another important wheat region, but one that does tend to irrigate often.

The situation in Morocco will have a tough time correcting itself — at least over the next few weeks. The spring growing season usually gets started in February and reproduction usually comes quickly, and that puts some added pressure on getting significant rain to the region soon. However, eastern Spain, Morocco and northwestern Algeria will continue limping along for a while longer.

Turkey was once suffering from dryness, as well, but it has benefited from the recent increase in cold air outbreaks in the higher latitudes. The recent insurgences of cold in Russia, eastern Europe and North America have pushed the jet stream far enough to the south to begin pumping moisture across Turkey and other areas in the Middle East. No area was drier than Turkey during the autumn, but all of the Middle East will benefit from expected higher precipitation occurrences in the next few weeks.

India has been the latest hot topic. India has not seen much moisture this winter, but the real issue has been the warmer-than-usual temperatures. Hot conditions in October and November delayed winter crop planting, including wheat, rapeseed, millet, sorghum and a wide assortment of pulse crops. A large part of the winter crop is irrigated, which reduces some of the panic about dryness there, but there are some areas in northeastern Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh that have been dry enough for a long enough period of time to hurt production potentials.

India is at a major crossroad with its reproductive season also beginning in February. Rain must fall in the next couple of weeks to perk up stressed crops ahead of reproduction. Timely rain in February would then be a tremendous boost to production, but if it stays dry many of the crops already struggling will end up with lower yields. The situation in India is not a crisis as we expect no droughts, but a smaller winter grain, oilseed and pulse crop will result if the dryness prevails.

In the meantime, weather in China, Russia, the remainder of Europe, Canada and the United States has been favorable for winter crops. Sufficient snow has been on the ground to minimize incidents of winterkill, and soil moisture is rated good enough to bring crops into spring with some potentially aggressive development potential.

There were two bouts of bitter cold that threatened winterkill recently. One occurred in southwestern Russia in late December and early January, and the other occurred in the central U.S. Plains in early January. In both events most of the coldest temperatures occurred in areas that had at least some snow on the ground. However, there is some suspicion that a few fields might have been damaged. The impact on global production will not be significant.

Argentina is finishing up its wheat harvest in a good manner, and soybeans, corn, sorghum and peanut development in that country is advancing well. Similar conditions are expected for a while, but do not be surprised to see some dryness in eastern Argentina. That dryness should stay east of the key grain and oilseed production areas and the bottom line should be good for production.

Despite all of the adversity in Brazil, its crops may still perform favorably. The crop will be a little smaller than desired by the Brazilians, but another disaster has been adverted by the recent upside down reversal in recent weather.

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