Lulled to Sleep (April 3, 2013)

As we wind down out of another high amplitude winter, many of the climate forcing signals are now neutral or too weak to have an impact on the daily sensible weather.  Before examining current conditions, let’s remind ourselves where we have been and why.  This past winter, and in fact the seasons before it, were dominated by extremely “blocky” flow, as the ocean basins of both the Pacific and Atlantic are in long term states that have a tendency to support such patterns.  Superimpose on this pattern a “La Nina” like state of the tropical pacific, and we had a pattern that produced the drought in the US Midwest last summer and periods of dryness in Argentina this past growing season.  Make no mistake about it, these events are not unrelated, but are a manifestation of the current climate regime.  The winter continued to see a strong blocking pattern, which is why mother nature has been reluctant to loosen old man winter’s grip.   You may also have taken notice of late freezes/cold spells across many different regions of the globe….from Argentine soy in March, the US wheat/early corn in the plains and deep south, to the current cold wave across Europe impacting winter wheat yields.  Again, these are not unrelated.   They are the state of the current climate system.  Whereas we had decades of mostly zonal flow that resulted in few major crop problems from 1985-2005, we now will have a period of “blocking” flow.   Crop disruptions will revert to their long term mean, growing seasons will be at risk for slow starts and abrupt ends.  Some of the most devastating freezes in US growing areas occurred in the 1970/80’s.  It is not new, just the old adage the what is old is new again.

As regards the current state of the climate, we remain in the background state of predisposition to blocking patterns.   However, the transitions from winter to springs are almost always like a staggering drunk, first this way, then that way, and so on until the final destination is reached.  In our case, that final destination will be the established pattern that will dominate the summer weather in 2013.  As of now, the short to medium term climate forcings that interact with the background climate state, are very weak or non-existent.  The tropical Pacific is hovering around the neutral state, flirting at times with La Nina (more blocking/less rainfall) and El Nino (less blocking/more rainfall).  The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), which cavorts around the globe and enhances/suppresses convective responses, plays a meaningful role in predicting weather in the 2-4 week time frame.  However, right now the MJO is too weak to lend any guidance.   As is the tropical pacific.  Thus, the atmosphere is a bit more chaotic and a bit less unpredictable.  Rains can fall in just about any place, as no “locking” or “blocking” mechanisms are in place.   From this, we are at risk of being lulled to sleep.  The March-May period is notoriously unreliable in the tropical Pacific, and the MJO will not stay weak forever.

The good news is we can plant US crops more/less on time, though decidedly behind last year’s record pace.  However, the prospects for the summer remain wide open, and we have only the background state to rely on, one that is pre-disposed to blocking patterns.  This is not a forecast of another crop problem, just a reminder that on climate scales, weeks and a month or two are not meaningful changes.  The evolution of these parameters between now and end of June will determine crop fates not just in the US but globally.   This pattern has taught us since 2010 to be respectful.   That is what I currently am doing…..

Flat Earth Risk Management


Stubborn ENSO (from 1.28.13)

Global climate conditions continue to behave as previously discussed, with the tropical Pacific very reluctant to move into an El Nino state, and instead having a current pre-disposition towards favoring La Nina’s.   The primary driving force for this, and I say primary for as with climate no single force alone can be adequately used as a predictor, is the negative state of the Pacific Ocean, called the PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation).  A positive PDO has warmer waters in the equatorial Pacific and colder waters in the North Pacific, while a negative PDO has cooler waters in the equatorial Pacific and warmer waters in the North Pacific.  From the above description, intuitively it makes sense that El Nino’s have an “easier” time of it in positive PDO (warmer pool of water near the equator) and that La Nina’s have an “easier” time of it during negative PDO (cooler pool near the equator).   Many climate models in early to mid-2012 were predicting an El Nino to occur by year’s end, and indeed the tropical Pacific warmed, but never had enough to do much more than that, and in fact we are now on the threshold of another La Nina, as the tropical Pacific has cooled yet again, though currently stalled at the moment.  A further bit of La Nina strengthening is expected again as we head into boreal spring, and that is not necessarily good for mid-latitude row crops.  Thus, we are faced with the possibility of additional supply problems in 2013.


This is not to say that El Nino’s cannot occur in negative PDO, the historical record shows that they most certainly can.  However, it takes a more complete synchronization of the multiple forcing factors in this type of climate regime to initiate one.  At times in the 1950’s and 60’s, (last period of prolonged negative PDO), the tropical Pacific went 5-7 years without an El Nino.  The state of climate forecasting is not advanced enough to make this bold a statement, but it has been a number of years already.   Once again, several climate models are forecasting an El Nino by the end of 2013.   Will this be the time the models get it right?  In any event, that is a good 9-12 months off, and for the balance of the already in progress Southern Hemisphere growing seasons and the upcoming Northern one, the background climate signal for 2013 will be mostly similar to that of the last few years.  As major droughts have struck globally in each of those years, we must remain on alert that such a possibility exists.   As of this writing, after a very wet start to the growing season in the southern part of South America, dryness has set in from mid-December onwards, and  the prospect for soaking rains in tenuous at best through mid-February if not the whole month.  As “unusual” as this seems to repeatedly have major crop issues, as this was not the case during the positive PDO “global warming” period of the last 30 years….let me repeat this for emphasis…the period from the mid-1980’s until several years ago was notable for its ABSENCE of devastating crop failure with very few major mid-latitude droughts nor Asian monsoon failures…..the current pattern resembles more the period around the 1950’s and 1930’s….which were quite notable, as history attests.  As persons with vested interests in agriculture, we do not have the luxury of worrying about 50-100 years in the future when pressing problems face us in the present.  As relates to climate prediction, a twist on an old phrase…”those who choose to ignore the past, will miss the future”.


Flat Earth Risk Management


Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Climate and its ultimate offspring, the weather, remain one the most important, contentious and in my opinion mis-represented features of the global landscape.  The great drought of 2012 reminds us of that.  Sure, geo-political and macro-economic events are almost always more press-worthy, but climate and weather are always there, always in motion and always working to deliver a unique combination of variables that remains just out of the grasp of researchers today.  Lest you think I am disparaging climate research, far from it.   But I believe it is best to characterize it as several steps forward followed by several steps backward, which is to say that the answer to one question almost always generates another or several more questions.  That is the power and beauty of science!   But climate science has made outstanding leaps in the past 50 years, not in the least because of the advent of satellites and the capabilities to collect a more robust spectrum of data from around the globe, especially the oceans.  ENSO (El Nino/Southern Oscillation) makes regular headlines these days, but back in the late 1970’s it was strictly a topic for academic researchers.  1982/83 changed all that and brought ENSO to the forefront.    Historical data and climate models now show relationships between ENSO (climate) and weather.  But they are, as are all attempts at modeling the atmosphere, imperfect….which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes….”Every theory of the course of events in nature is necessarily based on some simplification of the phenomena and is to some extent therefore a fairy tale” – Sir Napier Shaw: Manual of Meteorology: I, 123.  

Image courtesy of the University of Washington

So where I am going with this?  Simply enough, I want to remind people that, despite what you hear in the press almost every day, much much less is known about the climate system than you are told to believe.  It is human arrogance that leads us to believe with perhaps a few hundred years of global land data, a half century of satellite data, and limited ice cores and tree rings from millenia, that we really understand what is going on in the climate system.  Case in point today is with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).

The PDO is sea surface temperature dipole in the North Pacific, of which records go back to just over 100 years ago (in other words, insignificant in the climate history of planet Earth).  But as stated above, we are continuing to learn how these medium to long term climate oscillations interact with shorter term climate oscillations (ENSO) and a myriad of other variables the ultimately govern the winds on this planet.  As a slight detour, here are some other climate indices:    AMO (Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation), IDO (Indian Dipole Index), AO/NAM (Arctic Oscillation/Northern Annular Mode), NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation), SAM (Southern Annular Mode), QBO (Quasi-biennal Oscillation), Solar Flux/Sunspots, etc.  Complex indeed.

But back to the PDO.  It has multiple periodicities of approximately 20 and 60 years, which are incompletely understood.  But we can surmise that a positive PDO (left picture) has on average a greater abundance of warm water in the tropical Pacific to support El Nino’s and that as such they will be more frequent and more intense on average in the phase.  The converse is true of the negative phase.  On average cooler waters will support less frequent and intense El Nino events, and more frequent and intense La Nina events.  Why do we care about this?

Because El Nino/La Nina have differential impacts on the global weather.  Despite the localized devastation that El Nino wreaks, in general La Nina tends to be more damaging to global agriculture, and we are entering a period of the negative phase (recall 20 and 60 year periodicities, so we are here for a while) and will on average tend to have a greater risk of threats to agriculture than not.  Also note a warm tropical Pacific, given its expansive reach, also generally warms the planet.   The extended growing seasons, the almost unbelievable run of the Indian Monsoon in the last 25 years (much fewer failures than before), and the relative absence of crippling US droughts in the same time frame…until this year…should remind us that the last several decades have seen less climatic disruptions in key areas than prior periods.

Thus, the high prices and more importantly the extreme price volatility will remain a feature of these markets, and more so than ever will demand an integrated disciplined approach to managing risk, from farm-gate to table.   If you don’t know, understand and manage your risk, then without a doubt the market will do it for you.  It is not a sufficient strategy to hope for good weather.  The grain markets of 2012 have spoken, and in fact are not done speaking, but the real question is ,who is listening?