Weather in 2011 certainly was one for the books. It presented a bit of everything—tornadoes, droughts, floods hurricanes and even more in between. “It was a challenging year for agriculture,” notes Jeff Doran, senior business meteorologist with Planalytics. “There was rarely a time in 2011 that weather wasn’t a concern.”

Looking ahead, the United States is on course to deal with back-to-back La Ninas, and those systems like to throw some pretty dramatic weather events into the mix. However, not all La Ninas are the same, adds Fred Gesser, Planalytics’ senior global agriculture meteorologist. While this year’s La Nina was a moderate to strong system heading into winter, 2012’s looks to be a weak to moderate La Nina.

The strong La Nina attributed to this year’s record-setting drought in Texas, Oklahoma and the Southern Plains. It also played a role in the excessive snow pack in Canada, Montana and Wyoming that produced the Missouri River flooding in early June. “It was the worst flooding they’ve seen in South Dakota and Nebraska, and even in parts of Missouri and Iowa,” Doran points out. “In all, we believe 1.1 million acres of cropland were impacted by flood.”

Some of those factors will continue to play out in 2012, the Planalytics meteorologists predict. “Again this winter we have a La Nina. Also there’s a negative equatorial decadal oscillation (cold seasonal sea-surface temperatures) in the eastern Pacific. Both are key indicators to what lies ahead for U.S. agriculture weather-wise,” Gesser says; the later, being a stronger influence for now.

While it could offer some relief in terms of precipitation in the hard red winter wheat-growing areas, it also could result in very wet conditions for the Mississippi River Delta and the Ohio River Valley. “Remember the floods of 2011,” Gesser adds.

Not to be left out, the Atlantic sea-surface temperatures will influence the tropical storm season. “If those temperatures stay warm and the North Atlantic stays warm, we’ll see hurricanes develop in the North Atlantic versus the Gulf area,” he says. The take-away message is that will limit the potential for drought relief in the south.

So for 2012, Gesser looks for more of the same in many areas, but also some differences. Here are some weather factors he suggests keeping an eye on as they relate to agriculture:

  • New Mexico has already had a major snowfall, and the freeze potential for California from December through February this year is high. “On a scale of one to five, it’s a five,” Gesser says. The last time the scenario developed this strongly was in 1955. What’s more, it’s likely to spill over into Texas and Florida. “It (freeze) is a real threat to all citrus producers this year,” he adds.
  • The upper Missouri River basin will receive above normal precipitation for the third consecutive year, he predicts. Also snow pack in Montana and Wyoming will be above normal. “Watch the Red River Valley and Missouri River for a repeat of flooding,” Gesser says.
  • Wet conditions through the Ohio Valley and Tennessee Valley are typical of a La Nina. “I don’t see anything right now that would make me change that; so it looks like back-to-back wet years,” Gesser notes. The extended cool, wet spring forced late planting in the Eastern Corn Belt, leaving some growers still struggling to get this year’s crop harvested.   
  • An expanding drought. While it’s anchored in the Southern Plains, Gesser predicts it will extend up into the Western Corn Belt— Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri. “The concern is real; we need to watch it,” he advises.  
  • The Southeastern United States will continue to deal with dry conditions. Much of the south relies on the tropical storm season for moisture, and this year the Atlantic sea-surface temperatures suggest that the rains will skirt the Gulf and fail to offer relief.

So, while the New Year is sure to bring with it a few new weather developments, it also will repeat some of 2011’s challenges.