El Nino's Nasty Sister

La Nina could cause U.S. farmers real heartache

For much of this year, Al Nino, a 75-year-old resident of Nipomo, Calif., has gotten angry phone calls from people who wanted to know why he had disrupted the weather. "It's happened at least a half-dozen times," says Nino. He should be getting a rest soon. "El Nino is dead. It's over," says David Adamec, a research oceanographer at NASA/Goddard Flight Center.

But anybody with the surname Nina might consider getting an unlisted number. While El Nino is waning, a new weather pattern is forming in the Pacific. Called La Nina, or little girl, it's the flip side of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation cycle, which involves warmer than normal temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific. La Nina is associated with cooler ones and can lead to volatile weather patterns, including more violent hurricanes.

DROUGHTS, FLOODS. It is not unusual for La Nina to follow El Nino. Between 1986 and 1996, there have been four El Ninos, and two were followed by La Ninas. Now, observations by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and NASA both suggest that La Nina is moving in. Indeed, the wildfires in Florida are partly due to dry weather from the coming La Nina, say scientists. "The question no longer seems to be will we have La Nina but how strong will it be," says Adamec.

The effects will be felt mostly in the fall and winter: dry weather in the South and the Central Plains, unusually wet weather in the Pacific Northwest, and cold weather in the Upper Plains and the Northwest. Unusual droughts and floods caused by La Nina could harm agriculture, and a severe hurricane season could cost insurers.

Still, the economic impact may not be a disaster. Even though the latest El Nino was the climate event of the century, improved forecasting meant that it caused less damage than the 1982-83 El Nino, which inflicted $13 billion in damages worldwide, says Rodney Weiher, NOAA's chief economist. The expectations for La Nina are even milder.

There are ways to minimize La Nina's damages. Farmers, for example, may be able to escape the worst effects by postponing or moving up planting. Still, because forecasters are struggling to predict the severity of the upcoming La Nina, they might not know enough in time to protect some of the key summer crops. "The period between July 10 and Aug. 10 is critical for the corn and soybeans," says Steven Bruce, a broker with ED&F MAN International, because that's when they are pollinated.

HIGHER PRICES. La Nina of 1983 brought hot, dry conditions in July and August, leading to a drop in crop yields. The soybean yield, for example, was 16% below what had been expected. During the 1988 La Nina, soybean yields fell 19% below expectations. Dry weather in the Midwest and in California this year could raise the prices of corn and soybeans, which could be a boon for commodity traders but would be hard on farmers.

The bigger risk from La Nina is that it encourages hurricanes. On average, the season--which lasts from June until November--produces six hurricanes. During the last La Nina season in 1995 there were 11--and that was a relatively weak La Nina. "The magnitude of losses possible from a whole El Nino season...makes a pale comparison to a single hurricane," says David Malmquist, a geologist at the Risk Prediction Initiative, a Bermuda think tank launched by 10 insurance companies to develop more accurate hurricane forecasts. A single hurricane can easily cause $10 billion to $20 billion in damages. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused losses of $16 billion and wiped out many small insurers.

Nino or Nina, the weather patterns born in the Pacific will continue to play a big role in world economies.