Top 10 Ag Stories of 2023: No. 4

2023 Wild Weather Caused by Quick Change in La Nina to El Nino Ocean Temperatures

John Baranick
By  John Baranick , DTN Meteorologist
A switch from La Nina to El Nino occurred quickly in 2023 but the general effects did not. (DTN graphic)

Editor's Note: Each year DTN publishes our choices for the Top 10 ag news stories of the year as selected by DTN analysts, editors and reporters. This year, we're counting them down from Dec. 18 to Dec. 29. On Dec. 31, we will look at some of the runners-up for this year. Today, we continue the countdown with No. 4: How a quick change from a long-standing La Nina into a strong El Nino produced significant weather effects across the U.S. and Canada in 2023.

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This year's weather felt unprecedented in terms of dramatic changes and long-term pattern shifts across wide areas of the country, especially in America's Heartland. A quick change from La Nina to El Nino and its associated effects led to extremes in the weather that drew comparisons to the drought of 2012, causing panic in markets, only to see those concerns be alleviated for much of the country and then swing back the other way with a hot and dry finish to the year.

Weather is always a big topic in a growing season but this year just felt different.

LA NINA START

We started the year with La Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean (sea-surface temperatures well below the long-term average) but quickly changed to an El Nino state (above-normal sea-surface temperatures) by June. Sea-surface temperatures continued to rise through the end of the year and the developing El Nino certainly made a big change to the weather across North America.

However, La Nina which had been in place since late 2020 had a lagging effect on those changes, and the U.S. and Canadian Prairies routinely became stuck in weather patterns that they could not get out of.

FLOODING, HEAVY SNOWPACK

Early in the year, even while still under La Nina, a pattern more typical of El Nino showed up, bringing flooding rain and heavy snowpack to the Southwest. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

That continued into the spring and included parts of the Plains and Ohio Valley where rainfall deficits were eroded, sometimes dramatically. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Winter wheat conditions in the southwestern Plains improved dramatically from two years prior, though it was hard to shake off the drought that had occurred the previous few years. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) Eastern areas of the Corn Belt had delays in planting because of the extended wetness.

DRYNESS PATTERN, WILDFIRES

But from late April through most of June, a different pattern took shape, one of consistent dryness. It was not particularly hot most of the time, but the lack of precipitation induced flash drought across much of the Midwest up through the Canadian Prairies.

For Canada, that meant an extreme wildfire season and frequent, if not constant, smoke that also seeped into the United States. Eastern Canada probably saw the worst of it and reports of thick smoke affecting the Northeast U.S. canceled events in New York City.

Drought first came up on the U.S. Drought Monitor in early June and expanded quickly throughout the month. Producers were worried that their crops would be seriously harmed and comparisons to the 2012 drought permeated social media. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

CORN BELT RAIN, DERECHO

Then, suddenly, it felt like Mother Nature turned on the spigot and sent rounds of rain through much of the Corn Belt, but at a cost. It came with a strong derecho across the southern Corn Belt (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) and some areas did not get the same sorts of rain that others received -- Minnesota, Wisconsin and much of Iowa were particularly hit hard by continued dry weather -- but a true turnaround in crop conditions was noticeable from late June through early August.

The weather pattern was much more favorable for crop development and the comparisons to 2012 were over. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

But concerns over crop production lingered and opinions about how much the early drought hurt both corn and soybeans were still in the air as the weather from mid-August through the end of the growing season was particularly dry yet again and also very hot. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

FALL RAIN IN NORTH, EXTREME DROUGHT IN SOUTH

The fall season was more variable as northern areas saw much more rainfall, and even early snow across the Dakotas and Minnesota in October, but much of the Corn Belt kept up a drier stretch of weather, which was even worse farther south.

Increasing drought became extreme down toward the Gulf Coast and D3-D4 drought covered Louisiana and the surrounding areas in eastern Texas to the southern Appalachians. That made for low water levels on the Lower Mississippi River, breaking records for a second consecutive year. (https://www.dtnpf.com/… and https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Rain has helped recently, since November, but water levels continue to be low and limiting to barge traffic.

The bookend of poor growing conditions surrounded by a time of good weather was a season that many saw as wild and unprecedented. Some saw higher yields than they were expecting given the conditions; others did not. It was not a season many of us will forget any time soon.

To see more about our DTN countdown, see the Editors' Notebook blog at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

To see the other top stories of the year:

No. 10: "Livestock Producers Lean Into USDA's Livestock Risk Protection Coverage (LRP)," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

No. 9: "Supreme Court Rules on Two Major Ag Cases," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

No. 8: "EPA's Plan to Protect Endangered Species From Herbicides Draws Criticism," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

No. 7: "The High Cost of Some Inputs Fall, But So Does Farm Income," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

No. 6: "Ongoing Drought Slows Cow Herd Expansion During Year," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

No. 5: " King Corn Gives Up Its Crown as US Export Share Remains in Decline," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

You can find No. 3 in DTN's Top 10 list on Dec. 27.

John Baranick can be reached at john.baranick@dtn.com

John Baranick