El Nino Gains Strength as Pacific Warms Just Like It’s 1997

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What an El Nino Means for Agriculture in Asia

The El Nino developing across the Pacific strengthened further, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, which again highlighted patterns shown by the data that are similar to the record 1997-1998 event.

Sea-surface temperature indexes for the central and eastern tropical Pacific are more than 1 degree Celsius above average for a sixth week, the bureau said. Models showed the central Pacific will warm further over the coming months, it said.

El Ninos have the potential to affect weather and harvests around the globe by baking parts of Asia, dumping rain across South America and bringing cooler summers to North America. The event poses a risk for the global economy in the second half as it can hurt crops and boost inflation, according to Citigroup Inc. The 1997-98 El Nino was the strongest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A satellite image taken in November 1997 and released by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA shows an El Nino weather pattern.
A satellite image taken in November 1997 and released by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA shows an El Nino weather pattern.
Source: NASA/JPL/AFP via Getty Images

“It is unusual to have such a broad extent of warmth across the tropical Pacific,” the Melbourne-based bureau said in its fortnightly update on Tuesday. “The last time this occurred was during the 1997–98 El Nino.”

El Ninos are caused by warmings of the Pacific, and they can spur turmoil in farm markets as growers contend with drought or too much rain. Their impact can drive faster inflation across Asia as food costs rise, and may also extend to metals markets. The current event is the first since 2010.

Event Intensity

The Australian bureau’s update contained twin warnings that it isn’t possible at this stage to determine how intense this event will be, and also that an El Nino’s strength doesn’t always correspond to its impact. In May, forecasters at the center said they expected the current event to be substantial.

“The El Nino climate phenomenon is increasing the uncertainty on all markets,” Commerzbank AG said in a report on grains and oilseeds on Tuesday, which noted declining stockpiles for most farm products apart from soybeans.

While the India Meteorological Department forecast the El Nino would curb monsoon rainfall to 88 percent of average this year, there’s been a better-than-expected start to the season that nourishes crops across the country. Rains since June 1 have been 23 percent above-average, the department said Tuesday.

The majority of models suggest the Pacific will continue to warm in the coming months, possibly reaching strong El Nino levels, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said on June 15. Outlooks at this time aren’t as accurate as ones in the second half, and more-confident estimates of the event’s strength will be available after mid-year, it said.

“It is unlikely that the current event will dissipate in the near future, and hence impacts are likely to be apparent for at least the next three to six months,” the WMO said. “Events typically decay in the first quarter of the year following their formation.”

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