CARGILL's announcement that it will idle its Plainview, Texas, beef processing plant (story, page 1) marked the latest casualty of a multi-year drought that set a record last year and gripped much of the nation throughout the 2012 growing season.
According to the latest data from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2012 was the warmest year on record for the contiguous U.S.
NOAA scientists called 2012 the second-most "extreme" year in recorded history, based on the U.S. Climate Extremes Index, and noted that the average temperature for the year was significantly hotter than the 20th-century average and bested the previous warmest year by a full 1 degrees F.
For 2012, the Climate Extremes Index, which measures extremes in temperature and precipitation, as well as tropical cyclones making landfall, was nearly twice the average value and was second only to 1998. Last year saw nearly a dozen weather-related disasters that each crossed the $1 billion loss threshold, NOAA reported.
Drought, of course, was one of those disasters. At its peak in July, drought encompassed nearly 61% of the nation and fueled wildfires that burned more than 9.2 million acres, the third largest on record. Average precipitation for the year indicated the 15th-driest year on record.
Globally, 2012 was the 10th-warmest year on record, and NOAA said 2012 was the 36th consecutive year with a global temperature above the 20th-century average. Including 2012, all 12 years of the 21st-century rank among the 14 warmest in the 133-year period for which records have been kept. Only 1998 was warmer than 2012 globally.
Besides the U.S., major drought gripped many productive regions of the planet last year, including Australia, eastern Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of Brazil.
While forecasters had previously speculated that an El Nino/La Nina-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event might occur, shifting the current weather patterns and perhaps providing some relief to parched regions of the world, the latest models from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center suggest that an ENSO event is not likely to occur at this point.
Equatorial sea surface temperatures are increasingly below average across the eastern Pacific Ocean, and while atmospheric conditions may appear to mimic La Nina, ocean temperatures necessary to spark the well-known meteorological phenomenon remain neutral and are expected to persist as such through spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
Looking at the forecast for temperature and precipitation over the next three months, the message for U.S. producers is largely "good news/bad news." The good news appears to be above-average precipitation for the eastern Corn Belt stretching south into Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as for western Montana and the Idaho panhandle.
The bad news, on the other hand, is that precipitation is setting up to be below average for the southwestern quarter of the country, encompassing cattle feeding regions that already have been devastated by the multi-year drought. Temperatures are expected to be above normal for the lower half of the country and colder than normal for Montana and the Dakotas.
While recent rains have alleviated some of the stresses related to barge shipments on the Mississippi River and eased shipping costs and freight rates somewhat, concerns persist about excessive dryness lingering into the 2013 planting season.
Iowa State University climatologist Elwynn Taylor noted in early January that he expects a fourth consecutive year of below-trend crop yields based on drought conditions.
With more than 40% of the nation still facing severe to exceptional drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor (Map), it is easy to understand Taylor's pessimistic projection. His call for another year of subpar yields makes even more sense when considering that the western Corn Belt is not forecasted to receive any "extra" precipitation prior to planting and that the region produces nearly half of the U.S. corn crop.
Relative to the forecast for continued ENSO-neutral conditions, no news may, in fact, be good news after all.
Another year of La Nina would mean more abnormally hot temperatures, which would exacerbate further the already dry conditions. An El Nino event, on the other hand, might have produced the moisture necessary to make up the current deficits heading into planting.