After widespread rain and flooding in parts of eastern Australia, you may be wondering what happened to the forecast El Niño and the expected hot and dry summer.
Weather has a major influence on productivity and profitability in our agricultural supply chains. Until a crystal ball is made commercially available, the most viable option for producers wanting to respond proactively to changing climactic conditions is through harnessing data and digital tools.
But first back to that El Nino…
El Nino was formally declared by the Bureau of Meteorology in September 2023. Forecasts suggested below average rainfall over most of Australia along with higher temperatures in the south.
El Nino typically means reduced rainfall through winter and spring, particularly for eastern and northern Australia.
August to October 2023 was the driest three-month period on record, but since November parts of New South Wales and Victoria have experienced flooding, while severe thunderstorms and cyclones have reached northern Queensland.
BOM Senior Meteorologist Andrea Peace explained that El Nino’s influence on the Australian climate usually reduces over summer.
“El Nino is known to affect the weather in certain ways, but there is no guarantee of those effects, especially when so many other factors are at play,” she said in an update on social media.
“This summer, we've seen very high sea surface temperatures in the Tasman Sea, several degrees warmer than usual. And this has likely contributed to the increased wet weather.”
Ms Peace said another climate driver is also at play, the Southern Annular Mode or ‘SAM’, which refers to the (non-seasonal) north-south movement of the strong westerly winds that blow almost continuously in the mid- to high-latitudes of the southern hemisphere.
“When active during summer, SAM has historically increased the chance of above average rainfall in parts of the East,” she said.
“The widespread persistent rain we've seen across southeastern Australia since November is somewhat unusual for El Nino. It's also unusual to have a persistently positive SAM at the same time.”
As for the rest of summer, the Bureau is forecasting hotter and drier conditions for February.
Data, forecasts and decisions
Working with industry partners to harness data and digital technologies to make better decisions is a key focus of what we do at Food Agility.
“It’s no wonder that farmers spend a lot of time talking about and considering the impact of the weather – it’s part of producing our food and fibre,” said Food Agility project manager, Lucy Hickman.
“It’s increasingly important for producers to make decisions related to seasonal variability in the short term, but they also need to adapt to long-term change, too.
“Sharing and making better use of data and using AI and machine learning in new forecasting tools can unlock value for our agricultural sector.”
Our Robotics-ready AI viticulture project combines robotics, micro-climate weather services and AI to feed into management in the vineyard and predictions for winegrape tonnage and harvest features.
CSU researcher Dr Darren Yates developed the CLOWD apps as part of a Food Agility project to make climate data more accessible for farmers, in particular responding to the rice industry’s need for information about growing degree days.
Perspective of an industry partner with a ‘weather-eye’ on forecasting
Vice President of Research and Development at AgriWebb, Dr Kenny Sabir, said the forecast can be difficult for producers to use in decision making with the current tools available.
“Forecasting weather is probabilistic in nature - in that it looks at the per cent chance of getting rainfall,” he said. “The message gets simplified and there’s a whole lot of percentages and error rates that aren’t visible or understandable to everyone.”
Dr Sabir is excited by Foragecaster, a research project in collaboration with Food Agility CRC, which has helped the AgriWebb research team understand the requirements and market demand for livestock planning tools.
“We are not offering a crystal ball, instead providing a tool that producers can use on their farm to run through different scenarios using all the available data – not just weather forecasting but harnessing powerful historical information,” Dr Sabir said.
“They need to understand the impact of that on their farms and the goal is to simplify data into something more actionable for grazing planning by processing the various climate scenarios to understand future pasture growth, livestock growth and farm resilience.”
Dr Sabir also believes governments can foster innovation in the climate-forecasting space by providing open access to weather data and the Bureaus forecasting tools.
“Putting that information up for free, like how the government made the historical climate data freely available with LongPaddock, means that industry partners can take the data, crunch the numbers, develop and provide better services,” he said. “Not just having it available for farmers to access on a website but embedded in a tool - that’s where the real benefits can be unlocked.”