WORRYING signs are emerging from the Bureau of Meteorology's National Climate Centre that Australia is heading towards an El Nino.
Although farmers needn't start stockpiling hay or liquidating their herds just yet, the odds are starting to drift more and more towards a big dry.
The latest forecasts from climate scientists at the Bureau of Meteorology suggest the likelihood of an El Ni-o event this year are at around 50-50 - while the even money bet appears far from catastrophic, that is double the normal level of risk.
Autumn is the usual transition period for El Ni-o events and changes can occur quickly, so forecasters and farmers alike will be monitoring sea surface temperatures with even more interest in the coming months.
In a worrying sign temperatures have increased sharply below the surface of the western and central equatorial Pacific during the past few months.
Depending on other triggers, this warming trend may spread to the surface and lead to an El Ni-o event, senior meteorologist Grant Beard said.
Currently five of 12 National Climate Centre models are predicting an El Nino.
Despite the warnings, the Southern Oscillation Index which helps predict El Nino events, is in positive territory at the moment. (Sustained negative readings usually indicate El Nino).
January's value of the SOI was +3, twelve points higher than December's 9, and the approximate SOI for the 30 days ending 13th February was +6.
When drought struck eastern Australia in 1997, the six month average of the SOI from April to September was -17.8
Private long-range weather forecaster Leon Morandy dismissed the possibility of a looming El Nino, claiming as his forecasts did not reveal any abnormally dry periods in the next six months.
Both Mr Morandy and the National Climate Centre did agree that normal conditions should prevail in the next few months.
The Climate Centre's rainfall odds for the short term (March-May 2002) show no big swing towards wet or dry conditions.
According to its figures, the chance exceeding median rainfall are between 40 and 60 per cent in most of Australia. In parts of western WA, however, chances are slightly lower at 35 to 40%, although the outlook skill is moderate at best.