La Nina-inspired dry spell may plague U.S. southwest

The La Nina phenomenon may keep Texas and the southwestern U.S. mired in a prolonged dry spell and could aggravate the impact of the once-in-a-century drought which struck the area last year, a climatologist said Wednesday.

"It should still be dry in that area," David Zierden, a state climatologist at Florida State University, told Reuters in an interview at the annual Beltwide cotton conference about weather conditions in the main cotton growing region of Texas.

"They’ll still be feeling the effects of last year’s drought and (could) even be exacerbated by the ongoing La Nina. They’ll be dealing with drought issues well into the spring and summer," he said.

Texas and the southwestern U.S. produced about half of the 15.8 million (480-lb.) bale U.S. cotton crop in 2011-12.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center said in its monthly report in December that a weak to moderate La Nina will persist through the northern hemisphere winter.

The next update from the CPC, an office under the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, is due out Thursday.

American farmers planted 14.7 million acres to cotton in 2011, but harvested only 9.85 million acres. Most of the nearly five million acres that were not harvested were from Texas.

La Nina is the sibling of the more infamous El Nino. La Nina, which can last for several years, is caused by an abnormal cooling of waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Nino causes the opposite effect in the Pacific.

This La Nina is already sparking rising concern in grain and oilseed markets.

The 2011-12 corn crop of Argentina, the world’s No. 2 supplier, will be smaller than initially forecast due to dry weather linked to La Nina although output should still hit a record.

In leading palm grower/exporter Malaysia, severe monsoon rains from this La Nina could disrupt harvesting and boost palm oil prices.

Rains in the December to March period are also posing a threat to the coffee crop in Colombia, the world’s top source of high-quality beans.

A stronger La Nina which persists throughout the northern hemisphere spring could also lead to the formation of more storms during the annual Atlantic hurricane season.

Zierden said the last two years influenced by La Nina have led to more storms, although they stayed largely away from the U.S. mainland.

But he said La Nina raised the prospect of a recurrence of 2005, when a record 28 storms formed which included destructive Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. New Orleans was hit by Katrina and all caused severe damage in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

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