What an El Niño Event Could Mean for Fall Weather

    Fall tillage in corn stubble. ©Debra L Ferguson

    So far, 2023 has been a wild year for weather. Flooding, drought and hail have all made their way into the headlines – not to mention the extreme high and low temperatures seen throughout the seasons.

    While weather patterns have been anything but predictable this year, Eric Snodgrass, Principal Atmospheric Scientist for Nutrien Ag Solutions, says America’s heartland may start to see wetter weather conditions just in time for fall.

    “Unlike a year ago, we are not expecting a fall drought in the Midwest,” Snodgrass said during a recent Professional Dairy Producers Dairy Signal webinar. “Some of the best models in the world suggest that September, October and November could be wet in the upper Midwest.”

    Back in early June, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño advisory, noting that El Niño conditions were present and would likely strengthen into the fall and winter months.

    El Niño’s influence on the U.S. is usually weak during the summer months and more pronounced starting in the late fall through spring. According to the agency, moderate to strong El Niño conditions during the fall and winter typically result in wetter-than-average conditions from southern California to along the Gulf Coast and drier-than-average conditions in the Pacific Northwest and Ohio Valley. El Niño winters also bring better chances for warmer-than-average temperatures across the northern tier of the country.

    Currently, both European and American models indicate there may be abnormal dryness in the Northwest and mildly wetter conditions in the Midwest and Southeast portions of the U.S.

    Snodgrass says El Niño supports this correlation, adding that when you look at all the years when an El Niño event has been building, the U.S. is likely to experience more rain in the midsection of the country during fall.


    Good News for the Mississippi

    Wetter-than-normal weather conditions brewing in America’s heartland could also bring positive news for the Mississippi River, which plays a crucial role in transporting more than 45% of U.S. ag exports. Since June, water in the river has been decreasing, leading to restrictions on the amount of grain that can be carried on each barge. In turn, this has caused barge rates to surge.

    Snodgrass notes that the river’s depth is starting to come back up, which is good news for barge traffic. However, hurricane season could throw a wrench in this positive outlook.

    “The wildcard for the Mississippi going forward is where we currently sit in our hurricane season,” Snodgrass says. “We still have better than 80% of our hurricane season still to go. Right now, in the Gulf of Mexico, ocean temperatures are above 91°F with some pockets reaching 98°F. This is a breeding ground for tropical systems. And we are just on the edge of the tropical season.”


    Temperature Outlook

    During an El Niño year, cooler than normal temperatures can be expected in the fall, but don’t typically set in until October, according to Snodgrass. This means it’s unlikely that the upper Midwest will see frost in September.

    “Could there be a risk of having an on-time or even earlier frost? Yeah – there could be. But it’s not going to be in September based upon what I’ve got right now,” Snodgrass says. “I think September is going to have another couple episodes of warmth rather than drop into cold [temperatures] very quickly.”

    However, NOAA’s seasonal temperature outlook indicates thermometers may be higher than normal for most of the U.S.




    According to Snodgrass, El Niño winters tend to ruin the temperature gradient across the country. They tend to make the northern part of the U.S., which is typically cold, less cold. Additionally, they tend to make the southern part of the country, which is typically warm, less warm.

    “We see a cooler than average south and a warmer than average north in every December through February timeframe during El Niño. And that’s what I’m expecting this particular year to be.”


    A Flip of the Coin

    At the end of the day, only Mother Nature knows what the weather will look like for the remainder of the year. However, Snodgrass and NOAA meteorologists believe more precipitation will likely be seen for most of the country throughout the fall and early winter months.

    “The outlook for October, November and December indicates the upper Northwest will likely be dry with much of the rest of the country being wet,” Snodgrass says. “Looking further out into December, January and February, we worry about the Northwest continuing to be dry and California being wet. States in the southern part of the U.S. will also likely be wet.”

    Forecasters also predict temperatures will likely remain elevated throughout September before cooling off in October. States in the central part of the country may stick to their normal fall-like temperature patterns while the rest of the country may experience warmer weather. However, Snodgrass predicts cooler than normal temperatures may make their way to the Southern states come winter.

    Currently, meteorologists predict El Niño will stick around for the rest of 2023 and the early months of 2024.

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