Will food prices continue to rise, destabilizing the third world? A look at the ENSO.

Summary:   Riots around the world in 2008 and this year show the effect of rising food prices.  There are many drivers of prices — increasing consumption, under-investment, pests/disease, weather.  And despite the propaganda, cool cycles usually cause more harm than warm cycles.  In this series  we examine two wild cards, potential causing years of cool weather.  Today: decadal climate cycles.   Tomorrow: solar cycles.  At the end of this post are links to more information about the emerging food crisis and global climate cycles.


  1. About the causes of rising food prices
  2. What is the ENSO and why is it is important?
  3. Today we’re experiencing the effects of a La Nina
  4. What comes next?
  5. An important note
  6. Other posts about food and global cooling

(1)  About the causes of rising food prices

Among the two wild cards that might destabilize the world, two are widely underestimated:  the normal decadal cyles (e.g., ENSO) and sunspot cycles. It is too soon for reliable forecasts, but there is evidence that either or both might reduce global crops during the next decade — especially in climatically marginal areas like Russia and Canada — and thereby boost food prices. Given the high weight of food in emerging market CPI baskets (one-third to half), this could destabilize many poor nations.  The riots following the 2008 food price spike were just a sample of what might happen after a several years of rising prices.  Imagine what a repeat of the 1970’s cooling would do.

Source: “Population Growth, Increases in Agricultural Production and Trends in Food Prices“, Douglas Southgate (Prof agricultural economics at Ohio State U), Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, July 2009

(2) What is the ENSO and why is it is important?

The the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is} one of the world’s major large-scale sea-air coupled interaction, occurring in the tropical Indo-Pacific region.  From the Britannica:

Equatorial circulation undergoes variations following the irregular periods of roughly 3 to 8 years in response to changes in atmospheric pressure over the tropical Indo-Pacific region. Weakening of the east-to-west wind during a phase of the Southern Oscillation allows warm water in the western margin to slip back to the east by increasing the flow of the Equatorial Counter Current. Surface water temperatures and sea level decrease in the west and increase in the east, producing an event called El Niño. The combined ENSO effect has received much attention because it is associated with global-scale climatic variability.  (source here)

The Oceanic Niño Index (ONI), a measure of the departure from normal sea surface temperature in the east-central Pacific Ocean, is the standard means by which each El Niño episode is determined, gauged, and forecast.  (source here)

Periods dominated by El Nino tend to warming. Periods dominated by La Nina events (such as the 1970’s global cooling scare and the La Nina in progress now) tend to cooling — as shown in the below graph from Steve Goddard’s website.  “Had Crut” is the global temperature index of the UK Hadley Centre for Climate Change. The red/blue areas show the anomaly (current vs. average) sea surface temperatures (SST) in the Pacific as measured by the ONI.

(3)  Today we’re experiencing the effects of a La Nina

Today we are experiencing the effects of a strong La Nina.  Compare the current cycle with that of the 1970-1976 in the below graphic from page 22 of NOAA’s weekly ENSO report.  Blue areas are La Nina.  Note that there are no signs of unusual cycles at work. 


(4)  What comes next?

Despite the over-confident assertions on many anti-AGW websites, it is too early to reliably forecast what happens next.  But it’s worth watching.  The La Nina might end; it might grow worse and longer than 1970-1976.  The most recent NOAA forecast says:

La Niña is currently near its peak and is expected to persist into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2011 at a lesser intensity. Thereafter, there remains considerable uncertainty as to whether La Niña will last into the Northern Hemisphere summer (as suggested by the NCEP CFS and a few other models), or whether there will be a transition to ENSO-neutral conditions (as suggested by the CPC CON and a majority of the other models).

(5)  Important note

This is a snippet of analysis about a complex subject, a simple first look.  For another perspective see Prof Pielke Sr’s article “The Westerlies Explain The Recent Extreme Winter Weather, Not ‘Global Warming’“.

(6)  Other posts about food

  1. Important news about the global food crisis!, 1 April 2008
  2. A view from Indonesia of the food crisis, 3 April 2008
  3. Stratfor warns about the global food crisis, 18 April 2008
  4. What you probably do not know about China’s food crisis, 21 April 2008
  5. Higher food prices, riots, shortages – what is going on?, 29 April 2008
  6. A modest proposal for solving the global food crisis, 30 April 2008
  7. Weekend reading about the Food Crisis, 17 May 2008
  8. Teach a man to fish, and you understand what we have done wrong in Haiti, 23 May 2008
  9. “Food scares are exaggerated, but good copy for the media”, 28 May 2008
  10. Is global food production peaking?, 13 January 2010
  11. Fertilizer overuse destroying Chinese soil, 18 February 2010
  12. About the coming large rise in food prices, 12 November 2010
  13. More about rising food prices (perhaps one of the big trends of the next decade), 13 February 2010

Also note the science reference pages on the right-side menu bar.

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