For farmers the world over, weather is the one thing they can’t control. It can bring bounty or disaster, and often goes from one to the other in regular cycles.
One of those cycles is the El Niño phenomenon. It affects sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn influence weather patterns over much of the world.
El Niño brings hotter and drier weather to South Africa and other parts of the southern hemisphere. Its last visit, from 2014 to 2016, brought drought which hammered South Africa’s agricultural sector. The opposite part of the cycle is La Niña, which results in wetter weather and happier farmers.
The current La Niña is about to end after three bounteous years and record crops. Now El Niño is coming back – the question is when. Earlier this year, the forecast was that hotter, drier conditions would start before mid year, cutting winter rainfall in the Western Cape, but those conditions are now not expected until later in this year. Some relief for farmers, but hot and hard years lie ahead.
Those hard times are already being felt in Australia, which has had the second driest May in history and experts are forecasting significantly lower harvests of wheat, barley and canola.
All South Africans, and not just farmers, need to know more about El Niño. That’s the motivation behind a conference to be held in Pretoria next month. Hosted by the Extreme Climate Event Research Alliance (ECERA), its purpose is for scientists to engage civil society about El Niño and its impact. Government departments, businesses and other organisations have been invited.