Published on 10/27/97

El Nino Could Wreck Winter Landscapes

El Nino's warm Pacific Ocean currents could bring January flooding to Georgia. It could spell excess snowfall. Or it could mean nothing at all.

Nothing is certain with this baby.

The western Pacific Ocean warms and cools in cycles. Normally, east-to-west winds pile up warm water in the western Pacific, while deep, cold water rises to the surface along the South American coast.

Every few years, the trade winds change, allowing the pool of warm water to move east, where it blocks the rising cold water. These changes help trigger the global weather changes associated with El Nino.

El Nino (Spanish for "the little boy,") is so named because it usually arrives around Christmas.

A typical El Nino event lasts for 14 to 22 months. It decays when there is no longer enough warm water to sustain the cycle.

El Nino's effects reach far and wide. It has been blamed for everything from the destruction of the anchovy crop in Peru to increased snake bites in Montana to an outbreak of the bubonic plague in New Mexico.

But El Nino can also affect your own backyard.

"Some scientists are cautioning that weather effects could be severe, particularly on the U.S. West Coast," said Walter Reeves, a DeKalb County Extension Agent with the University of Georgia. "Or they might not even happen."

The last El Nino of this magnitude occurred during the winter of 1982 through the spring of '83. Below average temperatures were recorded in every month from January through June. April was the fourth coolest ever recorded.

"Each month, from January through April, there were three more rainy days than are normal," Reeves said.

Excess water and cold could spell disaster for landscapes.

"Although these events might not be repeated with this El Nino," Reeves said, "it makes sense to pay attention to winter flower beds to make sure they're well-drained."

You can check your beds for good drainage in two ways, said Paul Thomas, an extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Pour a couple of buckets of water on it, and if the water doesn't drain away quickly, you could have compacted soil," Thomas said. "Or water the bed and see how long it stays wet."

If El Nino brings a wet winter, Thomas said, there isn't much you can do to help shrubs and lawns. But you can help your beds.

"If there has ever been a year to turn over your annual beds and break up that soil, this is it," he said. "Add organic matter like bark or peanut hulls to the soil to add more air spaces for water to percolate through."

North Georgia's clay-heavy soil allows only tiny spaces for air. When it rains, the water replaces the air and forces it out of the ground. If the soil stays wet too long, it can suffocate the plants' roots.

"This year, if we have a wetter, sloppier winter," Thomas said, "homeowners want to add enough big-particle-matter compost and till it in as deep as you can to allow water to drain away."

Reeves also recommends checking the drainage patterns of surface water near beds.

"If surface water removal depends on a drain system," Reeves said, "check the drains often and keep them clear, or you may find your pansies bobbing merrily down the Chattahoochee."

Another nasty blow El Nino could deliver is tampering with the first and last frost dates.

In the 1983 El Nino, an April 20 last frost was the fourth latest recorded in the history books.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.