By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services
The weather is always difficult to predict. The meteorologist can be right less than 50% of the time, while keeping his job! However, with the weather, it is somewhat cyclical. Solar flares, sunspots and the La Niña/El Niño phenomenon are a bit more predictable and can give an indication of future weather patterns. Several cycles follow one another that farmers must monitor.
The 1930s were a turbulent decade for the United States, bringing drought and economic depression. The 1930s were a 10-year drought, made worse by scientists due to excessive tillage on the prairies. Is it possible we could repeat history with another long-term drought? Maybe? However, understanding some regular weather cycles that tend to repeat themselves can allow farmers to be a little better prepared for what may or may not happen.
Let’s start with solar flares and sunspot activity. Every 11 years or so, the sun exhibits a pattern of high sunspot activity followed by lower sunspot activity. Sunspot and solar flare activity can disrupt communications and electrical systems, but it can also increase the risk of drought. Currently, a peak in solar flares/sunspots is expected between 2023 and 2025, when sunspot activity is expected to peak before beginning to decline. On Labor Day 2022, a large solar flare reached Earth. Solar flares are rated from G1 (minor) to G5 (severe) and this solar flare is rated G2. The sun currently has a large sunspot that scientists observe.
Scientists expected this current cycle to be rather weak, but some scientists now say it could be one of the most active since people started recording solar flares in the 1700s. solar peaked in 2013-2014. It was rather muted and most scientists expected this next round to be muted as well. However, with the next maximum at least 1-2 years away, this cycle already exceeds its predicted solar flare activity and could be one of the most intense periods since solar records began. This could cause problems not only with satellite communications and electronics, but also with weather impacts for the next few years, until the cycle peaks and begins to decline. Nothing is certain so keep an eye on this phenomenon.
Many farmers are watching the La Niña/El Niña weather pattern closely. La Niña refers to the periodic cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. La Niña represents the cold phase of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. La Niña weather in winter has a wave-like jet stream across the United States and Canada, causing colder, stormier weather in the North and warmer, fewer storms in the South. In our region, the autumns tend to be warmer and drier than normal and the winters wetter than normal. Currently, La Niña is expected to continue, with La Niña risks gradually decreasing from 86% in the coming season to 60% in December-February 2022-23.
El Niño and La Niña episodes generally occur every 3 to 5 years. El Niño usually lasts 9-12 months while La Niña usually lasts 1-3 years. They both tend to develop in March-June, reaching a peak in intensity in December-April, then weakening in May-July. However, prolonged episodes of El Niño have lasted 2 years and even up to 3-4 years. This current La Niña is entering its third year, which is rather rare, and it was one of the strongest events on record. Strong La Niña episodes are often followed by stronger than normal El Niños with the possibility of more intense droughts.
The term El Niño (Spanish for “Baby Jesus”) refers to a warming of the ocean surface, or above-average sea surface temperatures, in central and eastern the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niños is associated with global weather disturbances and often droughts and even famines around the world. The weather generally differs from north to south, with the north being drier and the south wetter, but each El Niño varies from region to region and from event to event.
It’s entirely possible that all of these events are linked, but scientists need more information. Currently, China, the western states of the United States and Europe are experiencing severe droughts. Solar flares and sunspots are natural phenomena that cannot be controlled. The Earth has been warming for 128,000 years when the glaciers began to melt. Our climate is constantly changing and sometimes the weather can be harsh for a while. Usually though, the weather pendulum swings back and the weather changes in the opposite direction. Most of us are just here for the ride.