FARMER confidence will take a hit after the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) officially declared an El Niño climate event on Tuesday.
El Niño events are consistent with lower than average rainfall in many parts of Australia.
The BOM said El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) indicators have shown a steady trend towards El Niño levels since the start of the year.
Sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have exceeded El Niño thresholds for the past month, and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) has remained negative for several months.
It said these indicators suggested the tropical Pacific Ocean and atmosphere have started to couple and reinforce each other, indicating El Niño is likely to persist in the coming months.
International climate models surveyed by the Bureau indicate that tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures are likely to remain above El Niño thresholds through the coming southern winter and at least into spring.
While the news is grim for spring rainfall, the BOM said previous forecasts of a wetter than average winter remained in place, due to a warmer-than-average Indian Ocean dominating this outlook before El Niño becomes the dominant driver on climate in the second half of the year.
Dale Grey, climate agronomist with the agriculture department of the Victorian government, said the BOM announcement confirmed what was already happening.
“It has been very close to thresholds for the last couple of BOM updates.”
He said farmers needed to be aware of the odds against higher than average rainfall, but added how the season played out still remains to be seen.
“Just because it is an El Niño event does not mean it will be a severely below average year for crop production, just as last year, which was not an official El Niño saw many growers suffer extreme dry conditions,” Mr Grey said.
“We’ve seen high pressure systems to the north block rain from getting into south-eastern Australia so far this year, but equally there has been very good rain in WA.”
He said analysis of strong El Niño events in the past 120 years showed many had decile 3, or driest 30pc of years, outcomes.
“Many areas can still grow reasonable crops with that sort of rain, so long as it comes at the right time, that is the difficult bit to predict.
“At present the statistics say it is likely to be drier than average, but that does not necessarily mean a disaster is on its way.”
Mr Grey said that was borne out in models monitored for the climate newsletter The Break he put out.
“We monitor 11 or 12 separate climate models and although we have been near El Niño levels for a while, none of them are predicting significant dryness for the next three months.
“There’s relatively low skill in forecasting at this time of year, but it could happen, it is just less likely.”
BOM senior meteorologist David Jones said areas already in drought would struggle the most if El Niño brought another year of below average rain.
He said there would be strain on water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin, particularly in the north where northern NSW and Queensland have endured drought for consecutive years already.
Conditions are slightly better in parts of Victoria, although the north-west of the state also suffered a spring drought last year.
Andrew Trotter, of multi-peril crop insurance (MPCI) business Latevo said the announcement highlighted the fact growers needed to get risk management strategies in place.
“We’ve been quite surprised we’ve still got a low uptake on our MPCI product which allows growers to protect themselves from drought events.
“When there is raised production risk, I would have thought people would be looking to lower that risk wherever possible.”