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Australian forecasters raise likelihood of El Nino

AUSTRALIAN farmers stand a greater-than-even chance of being hit by a drought-inducing weather pattern known as El Nino, the country's official weather forecaster said yesterday.

The Bureau of Meteorology said that if recent trends in Pacific climate patterns held up, there was more than a 50-percent chance an El Nino event would be established by July. That is more than double the normal risk of an El Nino in any year.

"This view is supported by several computer forecasts of El Nino, which have firmed in their predictions of an event in 2009," David Jones, head of climate analysis at the bureau's National Climate Centre, said in a statement.

Last month, the bureau had put the odds at above 20 percent.

United States forecasters at Colorado State University said on Tuesday that there was "a slightly greater chance of a weak El Nino developing this summer/fall than there was in early April."

Australia is the world's fourth-largest wheat exporter. The possibility of an El Nino could reduce estimates for the next crop.

"If it plays out that we do have a drier season again, particularly through spring, then for some farmers it will be diabolical because they have had three or four seasons in a row ... of bad, failed crops," said Gavin Warburton, crop analyst at Australian Crop Forecasters.

However, he said it was too early to adjust forecasts, given there was no certainty that El Nino would occur. Even if it did, the extent of the impact on rainfall could vary.

Current estimates for the crop range from 21 million to 23 million tons, little changed from the 21.4 million tons harvested in 2008-09, which was the best crop in four years following drought-breaking rains in some parts of the country.

El Nino means "little boy" in Spanish. It occurs when the eastern Pacific Ocean heats up, with warmer, moist weather moving toward the east, leaving drier weather in the western Pacific and Australia.


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