Several months ago we were alerted that 2014 could be an El Nino year. On May 8, the National Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño Watch Alert. Now, it seems the question is not if El Niño will develop, but rather when it will develop. Early indications suggest the expected El Niño could produce historically strong weather events.

El Niño is characterized by a warming band of water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, coupled with rising air surface pressures. The effects of El Niño vary according to the strength and timing of its occurrence. El Niño weather patterns can be expected every two to seven years.

A strong El Niño would likely have a material influence on agricultural production across the globe. A new study by Japanese scientists suggests El Niño has the potential to hurt corn and wheat crops, but could be beneficial to soybean yields. Recent El Niño occurrences have benefited crops in the Corn Belt.

The United States and South America usually benefit from rainfall patterns that increase soybean production. El Niño can damage Australia’s wheat crops by producing drought. India could suffer from an interruption of the monsoon season, placing wheat crops at risk. Chinese grain yields could be affected as well. The weather phenomenon could help or hurt Asian crops, depending on the amount of precipitation, and whether increased rainfall occurs during the growing season, or during harvest.

Some weather officials have warned that the initial signs of this El Niño development draw similarities to those associated with the major El Niño event in 1997-98. That crop year, U.S. grain yields were largely unaffected, but some significant crop damage was reported in other countries. Most damage in the U.S. occurred in the country’s southwestern and northeastern regions. Areas in California and the Gulf Coast faced heavy flooding. The particularly strong El Niño produced a warm, wet winter across North America.

Major growing regions outside of the U.S. have been affected differently by past El Niño weather patterns. Some areas were burdened by massive flooding or drought, while others benefited from increased rainfall and favorable temperatures. Northern Brazil faced an intense drought that hurt corn and soybean crops. Drought hurt agricultural production in most parts of Asia. Black Sea growers have largely benefited from El Niño conditions.

If a significant El Niño does occur, its effects on agriculture are likely to linger. El Niño reverses itself by way of La Niña, the phenomenon of cooling ocean temperatures. Studies suggest that La Niña occurrences have been responsible for global crop yield losses of anywhere from 0%-5% below normal.

El Niño is often viewed as beneficial to North American harvests, but the weather phenomenon produces too many unknowns for agriculture. Its occurrence has resulted in massive flooding in some regions and severe drought in others.

Let’s hope “the boy” is quiet and well-mannered this time around. Keep yourself informed on developments regarding the possible El Niño. If the weather phenomenon starts to look as though it will disrupt agricultural production this year, marketing plans will have to be adjusted.