Perspective: Warm Midwest Summer?

Friday, February 5, 2016

February 5 – The debate over possible risks for a hot dry Midwest summer is expected to heat up in the weeks ahead. Most of the focus is on the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle as we transition from an El Nino pattern toward La Nina this year. However, the impacts of the ENSO cycle are frequently modified by a number of other factors, which we have occasionally highlighted. There are nine such factors that we are following, while many of the forecasts seen out there simply focus on a few of them.


One such factor is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) index. While similar to the ENSO that focuses on the equatorial Pacific, the PDO is a large-scale sea surface temperature/sea level pressure pattern based on the North Pacific. It tends to be much longer-lived in its phases, as its name implies, remaining in a particular phase across decades rather than changing year-to-year. The effects of the PDO cycle are primarily focused on the mid-latitudes of the Pacific Basin and North America, with smaller effects on the tropics. We are currently in a long-term negative phase that tends to increase the frequency of La Nina events supporting mid-continent hot/dry summers that would generally be detrimental to crops in the Midwest. Near-term, we are in short-term positive “time-out” phase.


Commodity Weather Group indicates that the two best matches for a “Super” El Nino winter are 1983 and 1998; two years that repeatedly show up in the analogs. The recently-released January PDO index came in at +0.80, which tracks in the middle of where we saw the two selected analog years at this point. The index is currently trending upward similar to both of those years in the winter months. The 1998 PDO index peaked in February before falling into a –PDO regime by May, while the 1983 PDO remained strongly positive until a sharp decline in late summer and early fall. Both 1983 and 1998 produced hot summers, although the heat focused on the Midwest in 1983 and on Texas in 1998.
The question then is, how will this year’s PDO evolve? The longer-term CFS forecast model currently favors a solution similar to what we saw in 1983, with sustained warmth in the Gulf of Alaska that keeps us in a near-term +PDO phase through the summer. We’ll be monitoring the PDO development in the months ahead, but it should be noted that this is just one of nine factors that forecasters are monitoring for projecting an outlook for the 2016 Midwest summer growing season. The majority of the other factors currently project a hot-Texas scenario, which would be more favorable for the Midwest in both temperatures and rainfall.

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