El Niño Packs a Wallop

Features - Features

The 2015-16 El Niño has been every bit as powerful as its record-setting 1997-98 predecessor, which brought storms, floods, landslides and unprecedented warmth to many areas of the country. What else did it bring? A glut of pests.

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February 10, 2016

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in early January that the 2015-16 El Niño ad tied that of 1997-98 as the strongest on record, PCT started asking around for predictions about what this weather event might mean to the pest management industry come spring and summer. We got a lot of shoulder shrugging and a brilliant adaptation of Mrs. Gump’s famous quote: “El El Niño is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get.”

You can say that again. During this El Niño event, we’ve seen unusually heavy and frequent downpours, and often resultant flooding, in the South and the West; warmer-than-normal temperatures in the North vs. colder-than-normal temps in the South; and the formation of the strongest landfalling Pacific hurricane on record (Patricia, October 2015) as well as the earliest Central Pacific hurricane on record (Pali, January 2016). And while none of this is particularly surprising given El Niño's past performances, it does point to the inevitability that we have to be prepared for just about anything. (Remember the Great Ice Storm of 1998? No one was ready for that.)

OUR BEST PEST GUESS. If we can’t predict what El Niño will do next, then how could we possibly predict its effect on pest pressure in the coming months? We can’t. We can, however, look at history and the typical conditions that develop during and in the wake of an El Niño event. (This one, by the way, has started to wane a bit and should be out of here by late spring or early summer.)

Let’s start with the historical look. A spring 1998 article posted by CNNMoney reported that pest management companies were “enjoying a booming business — reporting as much as a 20-percent jump,” thanks to the earlier, wetter spring brought about by El Niño. Mosquitoes, termites, ticks and grasshoppers were among the pests reportedly proliferating as a result of the unprecedented weather event. Many entomologists agreed that the industry had not seen a comparable bug season in decades.

Does 2016 hold the same promise? It could. The annual precipitation map above illustrates that the majority of the United States experienced a wetter-than-average year in 2015. Texas and Oklahoma set records for precipitation. Cities including St. Louis also posted a record wet year. Many others — Minneapolis, with two-and-a-half times its normal rainfall in November and December, for example — set seasonal records by getting absolutely drenched toward year-end. In fact, NOAA said that December 2015 was the wettest December on record in the contiguous United States.

December was also the warmest U.S. December on record. Twenty-nine states, including every state east of the Mississippi River, set record-warm Decembers, and not one state experienced a cooler-than-average December. Even more notable is that every state in the Lower 48 was warmer than average in 2015, with some — Florida, Washington and Oregon — setting records for warmth (see temperature map).

Annual Precip 2015. Source: NOAA/NCEI

Annual Temps 2015. Source: NOAA/NCEI

With the heat pushing winter back in a lot of regions, and the precipitation producing conditions (including standing water) conducive to pest propagation, we’re going to go out on a limb and say that you’re likely to see a whole lot of pest activity in spring and summer. Pending unforeseen weather anomalies yet to come, the conditions are right for a couple of very busy, and potentially prosperous, seasons.

The author is a frequent editorial contributor to PCT. She can be reached at ddefranco@gie.net.