I went into this winter with the most firewood ever. I was ready to take on winter’s worst after battling multiple severe winters with a less than adequate firewood arsenal in the past.
But, due to what has been a fairly mild season, it looks that I will have a head start on next year. I can give my chainsaw a bit of a rest in part thanks to the El Niño this winter that been shaping the weather patterns throughout the Midwest.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an El Niño develops when sea surface temperatures are warmer than average in the equatorial Pacific for an extended period of time. In El Niño winters, the polar jet stream is typically farther north than usual, while the Pacific jet stream remains to the south.
With the Midwest positioned between the storm tracks, warmer and drier conditions can develop during El Niño winters and typical extreme cold weather may be milder and less frequent. Warmer conditions may reduce total snowfall and the frequency of heavy snowfall events in the Midwest.
This winter’s weather does share some similarities with the typical El Niño winter pattern. Temperatures have been clearly above normal with the warmest December on record for Ohio and Michigan and areas have seen below normal snowfall. On the other hand, overall precipitation has differed from the typical El Niño winter pattern with some very wet regions in the Midwest this winter.
The February-April outlook for the Midwest from NOAA calls for enhanced chances of above-normal temperatures for Ohio and greater chances of below-normal precipitation, mainly across the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins. But, at this point, there is a high degree of uncertainty about predictions.
A key to anticipating the weather trends moving forward according to climatologist Elwynn Taylor from the Iowa State University is watching what the El Niño does next.
“If the El Niño manages to stay with us at least until the first of July, we have a 70% chance of an above average crop yield for the whole Corn Belt. If it switches out of El Niño to a La Niña, it is a 70% chance of a below normal average yield with extremely volatile weather. We hope the El Niño stays with us because it is the friend of the Midwest farmer. Should it disappear, keep track of it. It takes about a month before its effects go away,” Taylor said. “It is No. 3 of the top five recorded El Niño events and it is still going strong. A strong El Niño is often followed by a drought. Around April 15 will be a good time to assess the weather situation with the El Niño.”
Another trick Taylor suggests for getting a good estimate on yield by watching the weather is to track the nighttime temperatures during the growing season.
“If we want a large yield, we like to see the nights being a little cooler than usual with normal daytime temperatures. Clear nights will make things cooler. If the nights are warmer than usual, it shortens the time for our crop to put on weight and we do not want to shorten that,” he said. “From the first of July to the first of September, if the nights are cooler than usual, it is helping our yields. If they are warmer than usual it hurts them.”
Looking out longer term, Taylor points out that sometime around 2025 could be a tough year for U.S. agriculture.
“The Gleissberg cycle has to do with the condition of the sun. We pay attention to this roughly 89-year cycle. The harshest year of the 1800s was 1847. The harshest year of the 1900s was 1936. These were the coldest wettest winter followed by the warmest driest summer and they are 89 years apart,” he said. “If we are going to have Dust Bowl like weather in this century, that would put the harshest year for this century around 2025.”
There is also a long-standing weather pattern that leads to periods of increased yield variability in the United States.
“There is a pattern of 25 years of highly variable yields followed by 18 years of more consistent yields. Bet on that pattern,” Taylor said. “This year was the first year in the period of variability for 25 years.”
Ultimately, understanding that variability can lead to more profitable farms.
“Weather is the No. 1 risk we have. We can’t manage the weather, but we can manage the risk,” Taylor said. “Risk always has numbers. Uncertainty never has numbers. Uncertainty can be avoided and risk can be managed. You can make money on your farm from the volatility. Sometimes that is by accident, but you can make it on purpose. By knowing the weather, you can come out ahead.”