A dreaded El Nino phenomenon is developing according to the US government, as countries in the Asia-Pacific region warily gauge its potential to unhinge weather patterns around the world.
The Climate Prediction Center, an office under the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, said in a monthly report on Thursday that the equatorial Pacific Ocean has "transitioned ... to El Nino conditions."
Named after the Christ child because it was first noticed by Latin American anchovy fishermen in the 19th century, El Nino causes an abnormal warming of waters in the Pacific and wreaks meteorological havoc from Asia to North America.
This El Nino is striking just as global economies are struggling to overcome the impact of the world's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in 1929.
The 1997/98 El Nino killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage to crops, infrastructure, ports and mines.
CPC said current trends favor development "of a weak-to-moderate strength El Nino" into the northern hemisphere winter of 2009, "with further strengthening possible thereafter."
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said in a report Wednesday there was "very little chance of the current development (of an El Nino) stalling or reversing."
"It doesn't look weak, but then again, it doesn't look like it will be at the levels of the 1997/98 even either," said the bureau's Andrew Watkins in Sydney.
NINO TARGETS ASIA-PACIFIC CROPS
An El Nino-spawned drought would pose a major risk to wheat production in Australia, affect palm oil output in major producers Malaysia and Indonesia, and hit rice production in the Philippines, the world's biggest importer of the staple.
News over the past few days that this El Nino may be weak to moderate led to a sell-off in Malaysian palm oil futures, which slid to a three-month low on Tuesday.
On Thursday, cocoa futures in New York soared more than 5 percent amid jitters that El Nino could affect cocoa supply, much of which comes from Indonesia and West Africa.
The main source of worry for commodity market players is India, where the weather cycle seems to have contributed to a weaker-than-normal monsoon rain season considered critical to the country's sprawling farm economy.
While rains have now covered all of India, its Meteorological Department said that as of July 1, the rains were running at 29 per cent below normal.
A U.S. Agricultural attache report said the country may be hit by a severe drought if the monsoon remains weak since plantings for its major crops like soybeans, rice and sugar are closing by the middle of July.
An El Nino-induced dry spell in South America may hit soybean exports from Argentina and Brazil to China and India at a time when U.S. soybean stocks are at a 32-year low -- less than two weeks of normal commercial supplies.
A salutary effect of this El Nino may be fewer storms sweeping in from the Atlantic or the Gulf to threaten oil rigs and menace crops in Mexico, Cuba and Jamaica, and the southern United States.