Director of Weather Strategy at The Climate Corporation
Where does the rain come from? People young and old have asked this question since the dawn of humanity. Even with advanced degrees and decades of experience, in many ways, I’m still wondering myself. Rest assured, I can explain why rainfall occurs. However, I’m still pursuing a deeper understanding of what Mother Nature has in store for your crops and our operations here at The Climate Corporation and Bayer Crop Science.
This all begins with looking at the planet as a whole. What’s happening right now off the coast of Northern Peru could greatly influence planting season in the Corn Belt. The tiny blue dot that we call home has this interconnected and vastly complex weather system that can change the outcome of a season. Places far from your fields affect your crop yield. But exactly how far and by how much? It often starts along the equator in the tropical Pacific Ocean — the home of El Niño and La Niña.
By examining seasonal climate conditions in previous El Niño years, scientists have identified a set of typical impacts associated with the phenomenon. Source: NOAA Climate.gov
El Niño: The Granddaddy of Weather Systems
El Niño is the most important and well-understood weather phenomenon when it comes to forecasting what’s headed for your fields, months into the future. How is this possible? El Niño occurs when the hottest ocean water along the equator in the tropical Pacific ocean sloshes eastward toward the South American coast. La Niña (the colder counterpart of El Niño) occurs when the hot water sloshes back toward Indonesia; these cycles can occur over months to years. Some of the strongest and most persistent thunderstorms on Earth occur over the hottest water, so these storms are in lockstep with the hot water and follow it east and west. The thunderstorms heat the atmosphere, thousands of miles from the Corn Belt, and in turn influence the strength and location of the jet stream as it moves east from Asia to North America. The jet stream determines the storm track and thus completes the linkage of how hot ocean waters in the tropical Pacific influence the weather across the Corn Belt and your farm.
Summer Weather Remains a Mystery
In terms of agriculture in North America, winter and spring enjoy much more certainty and correlations with El Niño and La Niña. When we get into the summer months, unfortunately for anyone trying to grow crops in the Corn Belt, our knowledge is still in the early stages. My hope is that in the coming years, with advanced data and technology, we can begin to give more certainty to our summer forecasting.
La Niña — the cool phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern — weakened through March 2021, and odds are good conditions will revert to normal in the next month or so. But the continued presence may tip the odds toward a more active severe weather season.
Weather Is Always Playing the Odds
Everyone agrees that forecasts are imperfect. But, they are undoubtedly something you can rely on. Can Mother Nature still burn you? Of course. If there’s one bit of wisdom I could pass on to you, it’s accepting that weather is a game of chance. You have to ask yourself, what is my tolerance for risk? What’s the upside and downside if the forecast ends up being wrong? But it’s not just a roll of the dice. It’s an educated, calculated decision. If you listen to your local meteorologist closely, there’s actually a secret, mathematical code to what they’re saying.
How To Speak Meteorology
Did you know that Horace Benedict De Saussure was a Genevan geologist, meteorologist, physicist, mountaineer and Alpine explorer, often called the founder of alpinism and modern meteorology? He also was the first person to build a solar oven!
So, now that we have a number, say 40%, what does it mean? Will it rain 40% of the time? Or, will it rain over 40% of the area? Actually neither. It simply describes the probability that a single location, say your field, will receive 0.01 inches of rain sometime during a 12-hour period of similar conditions. Yikes! It gets even more complicated, but we will save that for another day.
Hour by Hour Leads the Way
Forecasting technology has made vast improvements in forecast skill over the past decades. But if there’s one forecast that stands out, it’s the hourly forecast; it’s getting much better! Today, when making decisions, I encourage you to look closely at the hour-by-hour forecasts to get a good sense of short-term trends and timing of abrupt changes. For the first day, and even extending into tomorrow, the hourly forecast should be a valuable tool in your tool box. Even if this means getting down to the wire, the data and track record of hourly forecasts are something to count on.
Monitoring weather conditions is critical for many spray applications. The FieldView™ Cab app makes this easier by displaying wind direction and wind speed at boom height (3ft).
Dr. Brad Colman is the Director of Weather Strategy at The Climate Corporation. Brad joined Climate six and a half years ago when he first led the development of the early weather capabilities offered through FieldView. His current role is focused on ensuring scientists across Climate and Bayer have access to the environmental information they need to develop agronomic models and maintain the vast global breeding and production pipelines across Bayer Crop Science. After earning his Sc.D. from MIT, Brad started his career with the NOAA and National Weather Service and spent 38 years doing jobs ranging between a weather forecaster in Alaska to a Lab Director in Washington, D.C.