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El Nino May Ease Worst Texas Drought, Cut Florida Storm Risk

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El Nino May Ease Worst Texas Drought, Cut Florida Storm Risk

El Nino, The return of an El Nino climate pattern to the Pacific Ocean may relieve the worst Texas drought in 90 years and may reduce the threat of hurricanes ravaging orange groves in Florida.

El Nino, characterized by warming waters in the Pacific, “could bring relief” in the fall and winter to Texas, where farms are suffering from the lack of rain, the National Weather Service said July 16. The El Nino will last through the Northern Hemisphere winter and into 2010, presaging winter storms in the Southwest and a reduction in Atlantic hurricanes, the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said July 9.

The threat of weather damage to U.S. crops helped send cotton to a 10-month high on July 21 on ICE Futures U.S. in New York, while orange-juice prices have surged 39 percent this year. Texas, which has lost $3.6 billion from the current drought, is the nation’s biggest cotton-growing state. Florida is the world’s largest grower of oranges after Brazil.

El Nino “would be a good thing for Texas,” said Drew Lerner, the president of forecaster World Weather Inc. in Overland Park, Kansas. “It would assure planting would occur more normally. There are less hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin in an El Nino year.”

Fewer storms also reduce the threat of damage to oil and natural-gas rigs scattered throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Crude- oil futures jumped 40 percent in 2005, touching a record high after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf.

Rain Aids Crops

Rain during the winter months helps Texas crops because the soil holds the moisture until planting in the spring, said Roger K.Haldenby, the vice president of operations for Plains Cotton Growers Inc. in Lubbock, Texas. Parts of the state have been in a drought since November 2007, according to the government.

Previous El Ninos have helped boost cotton production. After the climate pattern last developed in 2006-2007, Texas yielded 843 pounds of cotton per acre, more than at any time in at least five decades, according to government data.

“When there is a developing El Nino, in past years we’ve definitely noticed the southern part of the U.S., specifically Texas and the high plains of Texas, benefit from increased rainfall,” Haldenby said. “It’s a very important weather phenomenon for us. A wet winter from El Nino sets up the situation well for the following growing season.”

Ranchers Need Rain

Rains from El Nino also may help Texas ranchers reduce the cost of raising cattle by improving pastures, reducing the need to purchase hay or feedgrain. The state is the biggest U.S. cattle producer.

“We would hope it hurries up and develops,” said Bill Hyman, a rancher and executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas in Lockhart. “When you are ranching in a drought, you pay attention to weather. Hay costs about twice what it was in the last wet year.”

A bale of hay weighing 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) costs $55 to $70 during a dry year, compared with $30 to $35 when rain aids pastures, Hyman said.

One of the first indicators of how El Nino conditions will affect the U.S. will be hurricane activity in the Atlantic next month, said Mike Palmerino, a senior agricultural meteorologist for Minneapolis-based DTN Meteorlogix LLC. The hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

Tropical storms gather pace in the Atlantic Ocean in August and peak around Sept. 10, said Chuck Caracozza, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Miami.

“If the tropical-storm-and-hurricane season is less active than normal, that will tell us this El Nino has the ability to impact weather patterns” later in the year, Palmerino said.

Citrus Crops

Florida’s orange production in the 2006-2007 season fell to the lowest since the 1989-1990 crop year after hurricanes ripped through groves in 2004 and 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Florida citrus growers, and really anyone tied to agriculture, are obsessive weather watchers,” Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for grower group Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, said in an e-mail. “I’m sure they are following the El Nino patterns. If the forecast is fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic, then that’s terrific news and one less risk growers have to worry as much about.”

Palmerino, the DTN Meteorlogix forecaster, said a strong El Nino also may bring more rain to help ease a drought in California, the largest agricultural state, which produces everything from milk and beef to lettuce and strawberries. Winters also tend to be milder than normal in the northern U.S. and southern Canada during El Nino conditions, he said.

Corn, Soybeans

Corn and soybean harvests in the U.S., the largest grower and exporter, may benefit if El Nino delays frost in the Northern Hemisphere, extending the growing season after planting began later than usual this year, said Peter Meyer, an agricultural-product specialist for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York.

El Nino may strengthen in the months ahead, according to NOAA.

“We believe the El Nino will remain weak to moderate through fall, and it could possibly strengthen thereafter,” said Michelle L’Heureux, who leads the El Nino Southern Oscillation team at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. The Southern Oscillation Index refers to the atmospheric part of the climate pattern.

In June, surface temperatures in the east-central region of the Pacific met the threshold of reaching 0.5 degree Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) above average, indicating that an El Nino is developing, she said. Related indicators such as decreasing strength in east-to-west trade winds have been observed, L’Heureux said.

NOAA doesn’t expect the strength this year to reach the level of the 1997-1998 El Nino, which was “exceptionally” strong, L’Heureux said. The 2006-2007 event was classified as weak to moderate, after a weak El Nino in 2004-2005 and a strong pattern in 2002-2003, according to NOAA.

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