NEW YORK (Reuters) - The government forecaster has issued its most definitive report since first raising the El Niño alert three months ago, forecasting a weak phenomenon that will last until the Northern Hemisphere spring.
The latest assessment from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) could reduce the risk of a major drought in Asia, which produces some of the world's major food staples - such as sugar cane and grains. But it is unlikely to offset mounting fears about global food supplies.
The much-feared El Niño will develop weakly this month after mostly neutral conditions in August and persist through February of next year, the CPC predicted in its monthly report. It had forecast weak-to-moderate conditions in August.
"At this point the most likely outcome is a weaker event," Michelle L'Heureux, meteorologist and head of the CPC team that assesses the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, told Reuters.
A strong El Niño, essentially a warming of waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, can cause widespread drought in Australia, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and India, but also bring rains to other parts of the globe.
But based on the CPC's outlook, this year could be on par with previous less-disruptive episodes in 2004-05 and 2006-07 and far off a repeat of 2009 when drought damaged crops across Asia.
"Supported by the model forecasts and the continued warmth across the Pacific Ocean, the official forecast calls for the development of most likely a weak El Niño during September 2012, persisting through December-February 2012-13," it said on Thursday.
El Niño is still likely to influence weather patterns, but it will be on a more moderate scale, Donald Keeney, agricultural meteorologist with the Cropcast weather service, told Reuters.
For instance, a gentler El Niño reduces the threat of full-scale drought in Southeast Asia, a key region in the production of palm oil.
"There will (still) be some areas of dryness, but a half to two thirds of Southeast Asia will see average rainfall," Keeney said.
To be sure, El Niño will still be closely monitored for any impact on global weather, as it will strike as the world seeks to prevent a potential food crisis with harvests falling short of needs for the coming year.
In the United States, the corn belt this summer has suffered its worst drought in more than a century, pushing grain prices to record highs and raising concerns about inflation.
The CPC, part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, issued this year's first El Niño watch in June, warning the phenomenon could materialize in the second half of the year.
El Niño is the warming of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that occurs every four to 12 years, affecting crops from Asia to the Americas and reducing the chances of storms forming in the Atlantic basin during the hurricane season that runs to November 30.
(Reporting by Josephine Mason, editing by Gary Crosse)