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Should we be preparing for an El Niño in 2014?

Recently speculation has been rife that the end of 2014 will see an El Niño event — the change in Pacific ocean and atmosphere circulation that is known to produce drought, extreme heat, and fire in Australia…

El Nino could stoke more extreme bushfire weather. James975/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Recently speculation has been rife that the end of 2014 will see an El Niño event — the change in Pacific ocean and atmosphere circulation that is known to produce drought, extreme heat, and fire in Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest statement predicts that Pacific Ocean temperatures may approach El Niño levels by early winter, but the jury is out beyond the end of this year.

Given the catastrophic effects El Niño can have, should we be getting prepared anyway?

An El Niño for 2014?

A small number of models have predicted an El Niño later in the year. But these models generally suffer from what scientists call an “autumn predictability barrier”. During the southern hemisphere autumn it is hard to distinguish the development of an El Niño from background variability.

But a recent high-profile paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adamantly predicted an El Niño later this year, using a new framework that explores how ocean temperatures are connected between the equatorial Pacific and other regions. The paper claims to overcome the autumn predictability barrier, quoting a 70% success rate in simulating prediction of historical El Niño events.

Preparing for the worst

To better ready ourselves for an El Niño event, we need to know what the impact might be. El Niño affects our lives in many ways.

One important consideration is Murray River, which supports economic activities estimated at tens of billions of dollars each year, including our irrigated agriculture and water supply in regional areas.

El Niño can also happen in conjunction with other climate cycles. When an El Niño coincides with the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole, there is usually a dramatic reduction in annual inflow.

A prediction of an El Niño will trigger consideration of water allocation by our water managers, taking into account of the need for environmental flow to ensure the long-term health of the river.

Another consideration is drought, which has a direct impact on our ecosystems and farming communities. Our farmers are very skilled in using El Niño prediction information. They use the information to decide what crops to plant and level of cropping activities. Sometime it is better not to grow anything, to limit losses.

An incorrect prediction can be costly too. So our farmers make ongoing decisions using updated information (normally on a monthly basis). From time to time they will need help to get through tough times, and so our federal government needs to budget for drought relief.

A further consideration is extreme weather. More heatwaves, bushfires and dust storms will have an impact of human health, infrastructure, and emergency services. For example, our senior citizens are most affected by heat stress.

In the week of the recent January heatwave in Victoria, the number of deaths more than doubled. It’s a common-sense matter of getting well prepared to ensure relief is available when needed. If a cooler is needed, it is too late to install it after you hear the weather forecast.

Global warming: loading the dice

This year, and in summer 2013, southeast Australia experienced significant and unprecedented heatwaves, both associated with bushfires. These kinds of events usually take place in an El Niño year.

In fact, an average El Niño increases the global mean temperature by 0.1C. One example is the extreme El Niño of 1982-83, in which a string of heatwaves preceded the Ash Wednesday bushfires, amid severe drought conditions.

But 2013 and the summer just past were not a result of El Niño. In fact these record-breaking heatwaves occurred at a time when the increase of global surface temperatures has slowed, although regionally temperatures continue to increase. Inland Australia — the source of heat in south east Australian heatwaves — continues to warm.

The reason for the slowdown in the rising global surface temperatures is another ocean and atmosphere cycle: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Currently in a negative phase, the PDO is encouraging heat to be stored in the ocean thanks to changes in trade winds. Likewise, during a positive PDO, less heat is stored in the ocean, which can enhance the effect of El Niño as in the 1982-83 event.

So there are a range of scenarios depending on a number of different climate cycles. Imagine this one: global warming continues unmitigated by a “hiatus”, and then an El Niño or extreme El Niño occurs. Such an alignment of warming, positive PDO and El Niño is likely to occur several times over the next 20 years. While we can’t predict exactly when the PDO might shift to a positive phase, we might expect the current negative phase to last another four to five years.

If we didn’t like what we experienced in 2013 and early 2014, we’re unlikely to enjoy this worst-case scenario. Heatwaves will be not only more frequent, but hotter too. The associated drought would eventually break, but it will be longer and more severe. Are we ready?

Join the conversation

52 Comments sorted by

  1. Steven Crook

    Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

    When I tried it, your link to the PNAS paper got a "content not found".

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  2. Ken Swanson

    Geologist

    So in other words the author and the scientists just do not know what will happen.

    This article is full of equivocation about the potential outcomes.

    And then the final paragraph which emphasises the the worst case scenario.

    What am I meant to deduce from an article like this?

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      "What am I meant to deduce from an article like this?"

      What I deduce from this article, Mr Swanson, is that the worst case scenario for 2014-5 has 74% probability of occurrence.

      Feigning studied ignorance is irrelevant.

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    2. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      "So in other words the author and the scientists just do not know what will happen."

      Yes, if you assume that a likelihood of less than 100% is the same thing as "do not know".

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    3. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to David Semmens

      From the abstract they're saying that their model correctly predicted the absence of an El Nino for 2012 and 2013. This isn't the same as predicting an El Nino.

      The PNAS article is a pay to view, and I don't have access. Can anyone tell us if the authors hindecast using their method and if so, how successful it was with 'predicting' past El Nino events?

      Still, it's nice to have a climate science predictions that's this certain and only a few months ahead. We won't have to wait long.

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    4. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Steven Crook

      Yes, their model was 76% successful in hindcasting El Nino events in the period 1981 - 2011.

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    5. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Ken

      You could use this article as a step towards understanding why climate modelling is not an exact science.

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  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great Article, lucky for us we only have to wait till the end of year to truely see how well the papers findings hold up, 70% success predicting historic events...my money's with the academy

    "scenario. Heatwaves will be not only more frequent, but hotter too. The associated drought would eventually break, but it will be longer and more severe. Are we ready?" - Hells no we are not ready

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Michael Shand

      I agree Michael that at least it is not so far off to see what happens and that for most it'll likely be life and death as usual, it not taking too long to get another couple of fans set up for better air circulation and I'll try and remember I should run the generator more frequently and have connections set up just in case power is lost.
      What will also be interesting is that if we do in deed have another warmish summer and no El Nino, what will that say?

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Greg North

      "What will also be interesting is that if we do in deed have another warmish summer and no El Nino, what will that say?"

      My guess is it will be the same strawman responses "We have always had warm summers in Australia"

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  4. Mike Faulkner

    retiree

    Here we go again..."the sky's falling in".

    "While we can’t predict exactly when the PDO might shift to a positive phase, we might expect the current negative phase to last another four to five years."

    isn't THAT a better outlook?

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    1. Mike Faulkner

      retiree

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      So far government action in the past has been to encourage industrial polluters to continue actual pollution, but passing on costs imposed by the same government.
      The actual pollution continues UNABATED.

      Is this helping?

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Mike Faulkner

      And Mike the new government now uses the term 'natural disaster' to describe significant drought occurring in a neutral year. Which neatly describes their recalcitrance in preparing for naturally occurring cycles AND the overlaying problems to these phases caused by climate change. The costs to the economy due to future El Nino events in Australia will far outweigh the expense we've experienced so far in starting to move our economy away from greenhouse gas intensive electricity production. As the rest of the world is doing.

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    3. Mike Faulkner

      retiree

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Yes but the point of my comment was to highlight the fact simply pushing costs around like confetti does not STOP pollution.
      And don't tell me that the polluters will try to find a better way.
      Its not in their financial interests.

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mike Faulkner

      "And don't tell me that the polluters will try to find a better way."

      They will if we give everybody a whacking great tax cut, and fund it through a consumption tax on fossil fuel.

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    5. Mike Faulkner

      retiree

      In reply to David Arthur

      No, pollution will continue.

      As I said before, pushing taxes around here, there, and everywhere, sounds sensible, but depends on a pious hope that polluters will be forced financially to find a new way.
      What if they don't?

      And what about people depending on welfare?
      Do they enjoy a "great tax cut"? I think not.

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    6. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      " And Mike the new government now uses the term 'natural disaster' to describe significant drought occurring in a neutral year. Which neatly describes their recalcitrance in preparing for naturally occurring cycles "
      I am not too sure just how you can draw such a conclusion Alice when it is a fact well recognised by many people, in governments and not that Australia goes through various periods of drought, some far worse than others and that farming of any nature as the article mentions is just…

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    7. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Mike Faulkner

      But what does any of this have to do with setting out clearly, long term planning objectives which consider the impact that on-going climate change and more severe El Nino events will have in Australia. Sound policy which considers future events and plans for them can save money, waiting for them to happen then paying during a crisis is more costs more. We don't have a choice about moving to renewable energy. It is now cheaper than building more of the same, which is the cause of the problem long term.
      Do you think the Mayor of New York is talking about costs now, or risk associated with future costs. What does 'welfare' have to do with considering future El Nino events precisely?

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    8. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Greg North

      Thanks for that.... what drought is Greg, but unfortunately the facts about renewables don't stack up for you, renewables are set to increase by 40% in the next 5 years, they are the fastest-growing power generation sector , and will make up almost a quarter of all world-wide by 2018. etc etc. cheaper, more effective, more competitive ...
      http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/pressreleases/2013/june/name,39156,en.html

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    9. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mike Faulkner

      Thanks for that, Mr Faulkner. As it happens, I'm not the only person who's of the view that CO2 emissions are better priced out of existence rather than being rationed through cap imposition.

      Likewise, you're not alone with the view that imposition of caps is preferable; Mr John Newlands expresses a similar view to your self in the comments to Clive Hamilton's "Killing renewables softly with endless reviews" (http://theconversation.com/killing-renewables-softly-with-endless-reviews-23409

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    10. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, a ff consumption tax sounds good. My big reservation is the mindless jerks in Canberra - on all sides of the equation - may be willing to find ways to introduce this new revenue stream, but could we trust them to progressively switch off the other streams as you propose? I suspect they will want to have their cake and eat it too. It's all too simple for them. How would they justify their presence in the halls of power, if they had nothing to do?
      The other problem, of course, is how to regain tax revenue as ff usage drops to zero, but I'm sure they will find something else to bleed us with.

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    11. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Do you recall the heady days of the early Howard governments, when every new taxation measure was carefully and loudly introduced with loud cuts elsewhere to ensure revenue-neutrality? I think that's before they were all afflicted with hubris (aka assured uncritical praise from the Murdochery).

      The point of maintaining tax rates no higher than necessary to maintain good governance, social cohesion (a modicum of social justice), and frugally adequate defence of the Commonwealth is to allow the…

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    12. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, yours is a version of the 'user pays' model, but taken a step further. There is much to recommend it, which is why it would be furiously attacked in the corridors of power. I read an amusing quote in a Readers Digest in a waiting room the other day: "A committee is a cul de sac down which good ideas are lured and quietly strangled". As our exalted government is just a jumped-up committee, I find the quote apt.

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    13. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      " version of the 'user pays' model" yes, in which a price signal is used to guide everyone away from fossil fuel use at their own optimal time, and to their own preferred alternative technology.

      This will also engender competition among innovative alternative technologies.

      One problem I've noticed about economists? They really are clueless about science, scientific method, and scientific progress.

      They're also clueless about technology and the roles of technological advances and innovation in economic history, so much so that they don't even consider thee in their theories. Bit sad, really, considering they're paid so much.

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    14. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, the problem is, economists are generally paid to maintain the status quo: profits and growth above all things. Very few seem to even recognise the folly of infinite growth on a finite planet, so recognising how technology can be a game-changer would be a step too far, for most of them.

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    15. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      "infinite growth on a finite planet"?

      The irony is, on a finite planet the only possible non-finite sources of growth are personal (who we are) and technological (what we do with stuff) innovation - neither of which are acknowledged by most economists.

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    16. Trevor S

      Jack of all Trades

      In reply to Mike Faulkner

      "And don't tell me that the polluters will try to find a better way."

      That's a euphisimism for you and I of course. After all we are the ones emitting. If everyone saying they accecpt ACC in Aus changed to green energy from the grid, pfired ower stations wouldwould need shut down, all from market forces. If we all stopped flying for holidays or indulging in meat eating pets or driving cars. Of course, we can't be bothered. Rather, we use distancing language to offset blame to business or governemsnt to support our addiction to fosil fuels.

      80% of Austtralians voted for the ALP/LNP at the last Federal election. These are the people that ensured nothing effective was done on the supply side and it's surely a higher percentage that never do anything on the demand side, well, aside from buying a Prius or some trendy bag for their supermarket shopping.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Absolutely Alice.

      Seems Conservatives have forgotten how to be, well, conservative, like planning ahead and such like.

      How can these neo-cons in government truly not understand that our planet is finite? In fact the only thing which is infinite is the human capacity for stupidity.

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  5. Ken Jury

    Journalist (Marine & Aquatic Ecology

    Having comprehensively monitored the USA drought scene prior to our Australian Millennium drought, the very same picture is emerging again where the southern USA western states are now in the worst drought in history. Only last week the California Governor, Jerry Brown has issued a a statement about the conditions and likely results. This region of the US is again in crisis with its worst drought ever.
    Given the circumstances, its likely we'll have a repeat of our Millennium drought with a strong possibility later this year, if the US scene proves to be the pre-curser. A report of yesterday (19th Feb.)from Global Agriculture Monitoring Project included a CA satellite coverage included in its "Drought Stressing California's Plantscape." Details within the story are dramatic!!
    Ken Jury
    Senior Journalist (Marine & Aquatic Ecology).

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Ken Jury

      I understand California typically gets well above average rainfall during El Niño events. It's La Niña, such as has recently occurred, that is associated with drought conditions in California.

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    2. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Ken Jury

      Yes, Ken, not to mention the Federation Drought, the Great War Drought, the Second War Drought during which nearly every river in Australia dried up, the early 1970s Wet Drought followed by 25 years of lower, sporadic rainfall including the later 1970s Drought, and only then your Millenium Drought.

      Nah, mate, this country isn't drought prone. It's never happened before, and none of us is prepared. It's all climate change, and we're going to have to start paying attention finally. Is that the reality?

      I mean, no, it's not climate change or drought or any such thing, just city people and journalists making a big panic about everything that happens on the land, as if it never happened before and we all have to pay attention to what they are saying about it, as if we are all stupid and they know everything.

      And pay money to buy their newspapers, or watch their television programs.

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  6. Jacky Gleason

    Retired at Tertiary Education

    I really don't get it,

    Some places in Australia cop a drought like summer (Melbourne - very hot and way below average rain - etc), why wait till the end of 2014 to predict what is happening now -

    Or is it that these observations aren't very precise as a forecasting tool ...

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Jacky Gleason

      Jacky, they're talking about predicting an El Nino event, which is difficult to do this far ahead. So it's not entirely precise at this stage but, as the article notes, it loks as if they may have a method that gives over 70% accuracy - which is a big improvement.

      This year's heatwave in Melbourne and elsewhere (we copped it here in Canbera too!) happened in the absence of an El Nino. This is perfectly possible - it's just that El Nino years tend to be particularly hot and dry.

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  7. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "Are we ready?" How does a person, a community, or a nation prepare for the unknown and unknowable? Through appropriate risk management. We know a bad El Niño is coming, even if we don't know when. Governments at every level should be readying mitigation resources and individuals should be fire- and drought-hardening their properties. This should be an automatic part of normal life, so the catastrophic effects of such events can, at least, be managed. The problem is in tying up capital and materials in preparation, when there are so many immediate needs these resources could be applied to. In spite of our best efforts, Nature will dictate whether our preparations are adequate, or overwhelmed. History favours the latter.

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    1. Will Hunt

      Farmer

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      ""Are we ready?" How does a person, a community, or a nation prepare for the unknown and unknowable?"
      Well, for a start, it isn't unknowable. We've had plenty of El Ninos and have a lot of experience with them.
      My silage bunkers and grain silos are full and it is a drought until it proves itself otherwise. ... But then again EVERY year is a drought until it proves itself otherwise.
      Though for my part of the world here in South East of SA, we actually do reasonably well out of El Ninos, as does Western Australia - some of their best years are ENs. Historically, our drought years are not El Nino years
      For us, enough rain sneaks in from the Southern Ocean to give yields which, although reduced, are more than made up for by increases in price caused by supply shortfalls from areas in NSW & Qld which rely on summer rains.
      El Ninos are not universally bad for Australian farmers

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    2. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Will Hunt

      "EVERY year is a drought until it proves itself otherwise."

      About right.

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    3. Will Hunt

      Farmer

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      Right but not that simple Tom
      1 drought year is easy
      2 in a row is hard work
      3 in a row doesn't bear thinking about

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  8. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This article is somewhat specious ... as it implies an ability to 'prepare'; I didn't read the usual pap of 'adaptability', but what can or more importantly will Tony Abbott do, other than his photo opportunity and mutter a 'shit happens' ...

    Will Joe Hockey's focus on stiffing the elderly even more out of their pensions (misspent by both side of the political fence since the 60's); why not just make the pension collectible at age 79 (as the average age men go), but still get everyone to pay the…

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  9. Tom Fisher

    Editor and Proofreader

    I am finding it highly problematic that people should be being warned to be prepared for climate catastrophic events, instead of living a life anyway that is frugal, conservative, and ready for anything that might crop up.

    Harsh? I don't think so. It is profligate affluence and overpopulation that is causing all this stuff to start with when it might have been prevented. There is this mistaken idea around that living simply and frugally is somehow arduous, to be pitied and looked down upon, not the quiet achievement and pleasure it is in fact.

    As things stand, we have two centuries to go now before any change in the current regime will be forthcoming.

    In that time, the inevitable will take place, being precisely that if people are unable willingly to learn the easy way they will be forced to learn the hard way.

    Might as well get used to it.

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      yep, you're right Tom.

      Unfortunately, the current crop of politicians are not unlike our drought affected country; they grew up, were educated and live in a surreal world ... and have no idea of the necessary inputs to survival

      They were indoctrinated to believe that the growth potential is infinite and energy will move mountains, but not that there is cause and effect and exponential growth is impossible ...

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    2. Saide Gray

      Education and Social Research

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Thank you for this informative article, Wenju. It is making me think about our plans for our property over the coming year.
      Some of the native revegetation plantings done last year in our Central Victorian property are doing better than expected, while survival rates of those seedlings more exposed have not been good. In the light of your projections, we may postpone planned plantings for another year and concentrate on protecting what we have from the dry extremes.
      It is interesting to look at the average annual rainfall trends in our region for the last 100 years. Seems definitely to be decreasing, especially in Melbourne's water catchment areas. For more information see http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/about/rain_trendmaps.shtml

      It also makes me wish governments had taken action to reduce and prevent pollution many decades ago, then we wouldn't have to make such a rush to modify our economies now.

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    3. Will Hunt

      Farmer

      In reply to Saide Gray

      Mass germinations of natives coming up naturally in some areas only happens perhaps 4 or 5 times each century following extensive flooding. It is overly optomistic to expect plantings to succeed every year

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