KANSAS CITY — El Niño continues to dominate world weather, and it will do so for the next three to four months, despite a steady weakening trend. Studies have shown that often the greatest impact of El Niño events on agriculture tend to occur while the phenomenon is evolving and not when it is decaying. With that said, the general media will continue to keep El Niño at the center of attention, but as the event diminishes weather in the Northern Hemisphere during the spring and summer of 2016 will change again.

The biggest debate will be over whether or not La Niña will evolve in 2016, and if it evolves, how quickly it transitions from El Niño to La Niña will have much to say about how warm it gets this summer and how much rain may fall. Going back about 65 years in history and looking at all of the significant El Niño events and how they evolved in the following spring and summer has been rather enlightening.

World Weather, Inc. examined 10 El Niño events of significance, and 6 out of the 10 events transitioned into La Niña before the following summer growing season was over. In some cases La Niña developed in the spring and in others it developed in the late summer or early autumn, but for this study we were only interested in whether the transition from one phase of ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation) to another took place. The six years we studied for transition from El Niño to La Niña included 1964, 1973, 1988, 1995, 1998 and 2010. Collectively, there was a strong correlation for warmer-than-usual temperatures in May, June, July and August. Not all of the summers were hot, but some were more so than others. The year 1988 had great influence on the study. If it was removed from the study, temperatures were not nearly as far above average, so some caution is needed in that part of the assessment.

For the four years in which El Niño transitioned to neutral ENSO conditions (1966, 1983, 1992 and 2003), the May and June temperature bias was significantly cooler than usual in the Midwest and neighboring areas. July and August weather tended to be warmer, but not nearly as anomalously warm as the El Niño to La Niña years.

Precipitation associations in the El Niño to La Niña years were not nearly as significant as the correlations with temperatures. There was a tendency for the southern Plains to be drier biased in May and June of the years moving from El Niño to Neutral ENSO conditions, but July was quite mixed with no definitive bias. August and September tended to be a little drier biased in eastern portions of the Midwest and southeastern states.

The study suggested that if El Niño moves to a La Niña in the spring or summer of 2016, there may be a warmer-than-usual temperature bias that will dominate the growing season. That suggests stronger evaporation rates and quicker drying tendencies between rain events. There is also a general understanding that when La Niña occurs there is a tendency for the middle latitudes to receive less-than-normal rainfall, and if that turns out to be the case in 2016, then the odds become even greater that U.S. crop areas from the Plains through the Midwest and southeastern states may have a challenging year with a warmer and slightly drier bias playing out over the growing season.

If Neutral ENSO conditions occur next summer, there will not be nearly as much heat in key crop areas and there may be a few weeks of cooler biased conditions along with a more normal rainfall distribution. The impact of these two scenarios would obviously have influence on commodity trade in 2016 with the La Niña solution probably driving futures prices higher because of the “potential” for heat and dryness.

This study regarding El Niño to La Niña years is even more important for 2016 because the long-term prevailing pattern that will be operating independently of ENSO already has suggested a drier bias in the lower Midwest, southeastern states, Delta and southern Plains. That implies that with or without La Niña there may be a natural tendency for some warmer and drier biased conditions to occur in a fair amount of crop country.

If the long-term trend in weather is correct and La Niña evolves on top of this trend, dryness may become more significant and crops may have a greater weather challenge that might threaten production in a few areas.

Looking at some of the weather trends that will be prevailing in other parts of the world in 2016, World Weather, Inc. has not found many good reasons to expect threatening weather. Typically, the year after El Niño tends to increase rain in India, Southeast Asia, South Africa, Central America, Mexico, northern South America and Central Africa. Sometimes a few other middle latitude crop areas have a tendency to dry out, but our long-term Trend Model has suggested Europe and the western CIS will experience a wet and cool spring and summer this year leaving only China and the United States as wild cards. We have not found a significant anomalous weather signal for China, and that leaves the United States as the most important crop region in the world that may influence commodity futures prices higher based on the potential for La Niña on top of the prevailing drier bias that
is already in place.

What happens in U.S. weather this spring and summer is likely to lead commodity futures trade, whether it is a perceived threat or an actual threat. La Niña will certainly lead the charge higher if it looks like that phenomenon will evolve. But a word of caution is warranted here before investing your life’s savings in La Niña-based potentials for higher commodity futures prices. Remember that most meteorologists protest too much and that we really do not know nearly as much about the weather as we like to suggest. That is one of the reasons why forecasts for doom and gloom in 2015 due to the “strongest El Niño ever recorded” turned out to be just another opportunity for “egg on the face” since El Niño was not nearly the beast it was advertised to be — not that this meteorologist was on that bandwagon.

Not all of the commodity leadership will be on the United States this spring and summer. Crop production in Brazil and Argentina will still have much to say about futures prices in the next few weeks. However, El Niño events tend to be quite friendly for the two nations, and even though second season corn and cotton plantings will be down in Brazil this season their soybean crop should still be quite successful. Argentina production is liable to be high, as well.

South Africa summer crop production will be poor this year because of El Niño-driven drought, but areas like Indonesia and Malaysia already are seeing some improved weather and this trend may continue for a while.

Despite all of the talk about weakening El Niño, the United States will still feel a strong influence from the phenomenon this winter and early spring. California likely will see some strong storms and improving water supply, and there will be potential for winter and spring flooding in the southeastern U.S. Plains, Delta and lower Midwest — the very same areas that may be a little too dry a few months later.