Editor's note: The following article was featured in the November/December 2015 issue of PORK Network.
For thousands of years, sea level has remained relatively stable and human communities have settled along the planet's coastlines. But according to NASA scientists, Earth's seas are rising: They say globally, sea level has risen about eight inches (20 centimeters) since the beginning of the 20th century and more than two inches (5 centimeters) in the last 20 years alone.
All signs suggest that this rise is accelerating.
"Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it's pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise," says Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead of the Sea Level Change Team. "But we don't know whether it will happen in 100 years or 200 years."
While the expansion of warmer ocean waters and tectonic movement of land masses play key roles in both global and local sea level changes, it's the fate of the polar ice sheets that will most determine how much coastlines change in the coming decades.
"We've seen from the paleoclimate record that sea level rise of as much as 10 feet [3 meters] in a century or two is possible, if the ice sheets fall apart rapidly," said Tom Wagner, the cryosphere program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We're seeing evidence that the ice sheets are waking up, but we need to understand them better before we can say we're in a new era of rapid ice loss."
Along with long term climate change, there are shorter-term patterns that impact weather. Every two to seven years, an unusually warm pool of water – sometimes 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal – develops across the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean to create a natural short-term climate change event. This warm condition, known as El Niño, affects the local aquatic environment, but also spurs extreme weather patterns around the world, from hurricanes on the east coast to droughts in Australia. This winter, the 2015-16 El Niño event will be better observed from space than any previous El Niño.
This year's El Niño is already strong and appears likely to equal the event of 1997-98, the strongest El Niño on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. All 19 of NASA's current orbiting Earth-observing missions were launched after 1997. In the past two decades, NASA has made tremendous progress in gathering and analyzing data that help researchers understand more about the mechanics and global impacts of El Niño.
"El Niño is a fascinating phenomenon because it has such far-reaching and diverse impacts,” says Lesley Ott, research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “The fact that fires in Indonesia are linked with circulation patterns that influence rainfall over the United States shows how complex and interconnected the Earth system is."
Using NASA satellite observations in tandem with supercomputer processing power for modeling systems, scientists have a comprehensive suite of tools to analyze El Niño events and their global impacts as never before. Throughout this winter, NASA will be sharing the latest scientific insights and imagery updates related to El Niño.
Scientists are learning how El Niño affects the year-to-year variability for fire seasons in the western United States, Amazon and Indonesia. El Niño may also affect the yearly variability of the ground-level pollutant ozone that severely affects human health. Researchers will be keenly focused on how the current El Niño will affect the drought in California.
"We still have a lot to learn about these connections, and NASA's suite of satellites will help us understand these processes in a new and deeper way," said Ott.
What it Means to You
El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of what is known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. This cycle represents temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Pacific Ocean near the equator. El Niño is the warm phase of ENSO, while La Niña is the cold phase. These deviations from normal surface temperatures can have large-scale impacts on global weather and climate. According to NOAA, El Niño and La Niña episodes typically last nine to 12 months.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains the “forecaster consensus” is for a strong El Niño event that has a 90 percent chance of persisting through fall and an 85 percent chance of lasting through winter. What does this mean for major crops across America’s heartland, namely corn and soybeans?
“Most of the Midwest had warm, dry weather with adequate precipitation this summer,” says Jerry Lehnertz, Vice President of Lending for Agribank in St. Paul, Minn. “We think this will mean good crops this year, with very good growing conditions.”
That’s exactly what happened in the Midwest. Yields in Iowa, Illinois and the other central plains states have been well above average.
As producers look forward to 2016, the Agribank Insights newsletter provides some clues, based on historical data.
El Nino’s Continued Impact: Above-average sea surface temperatures are forecasted to persist into 2016. These El Niño conditions can significantly impact U.S. weather patterns, including warmer-than-average temperatures over the western and northern United States, wetter-than-average conditions over portions of the U.S. Gulf Coast and Florida, and drier-than-average conditions in the Ohio Valley and Pacific Northwest.
Corn and Soybean Production: Although as of publication, harvest wasn’t yet completed, it appears this year’s corn crop is going to be among the largest on record. Ron Plain, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo., says, “This year’s corn production was more than double that of any year prior to 1978. The steady growth in corn production has facilitated increasing meat production while building a huge ethanol industry.
“Three large crops in a row are why corn prices are below $4 in much of the country and why they are likely to stay there for a while,” Plain says. “USDA is forecasting the 2015-16 marketing year average corn price to be around $3.80/bushel.”
Planted soybeans were estimated at 85.139 million acres, representing a 1.438 million acre increase compared to final 2014 data, which would be the highest on record since USDA started tracking soybean planted acreage in 1960.
Future Expectations: If predictions of a moderate to strong El Niño through the rest of 2015 and into 2016 are true, then history shows that it’s uncommon to have subpar national crop production results for corn and soybeans except in the few cases where very hot, dry weather occurs during the critical crop development phase in June and July. It appears this forecast is coming true, though exceptions could very well occur next year.
The present environment presents an opportunity for producers to see how they can become more efficient.
“Corn and soybean growers are coming off a very strong year,” says Lehnertz. “This is a time for them to look at rebalancing their financial statements; our lenders are counseling producers on how they can introduce more efficiencies.”
For pork producers, Plain says corn prices should keep the cost of production for farrow to finish operations around $50/cwt live or $67/cwt carcass.
He says, “The futures market indicates that 2016 will be a profitable, but not spectacular, year for pork producers.”