Our results indicate that most ENSO teleconnections relevant for crop flowering seasons are the result of a single trans-Pacific circulation anomaly that develops in boreal summer and persists through the spring. During the late summer and early fall of a developing ENSO event, the tropical Pacific forces an atmospheric anomaly in the northern midlatitudes that spans the Pacific from northern China to North America and in the southern midlatitudes from Australia to southeast South America. This teleconnection directly links the soybean and maize growing seasons of the US, Mexico and China. It also connects the wheat growing seasons of Argentina, southern Brazil and Australia. The ENSO event peaks in boreal winter, when the atmospheric circulation anomalies intensify and affect maize and soybeans in southeast South America. As the event decays, the ENSO-induced circulation anomalies persist through the wheat flowering seasons in China and the US.
While the prospect of ENSO forcing simultaneous droughts in major food producing regions seems disastrous, there may be a silver lining from the perspective of global food security: trans-Pacific ENSO teleconnections to yields are often offsetting between major producing regions in the eastern and western portions of the Pacific Basin. El Niños tend to create good maize and soybean growing conditions in the US and southeast South America, but poor growing conditions in China, Mexico and northeast Brazil. The opposite is true during La Niña. Wheat growing conditions in southeast South America generally have the opposite sign of those in Australia. Finally, we use an ensemble of AMIP model simulations to confirm that observed anomalies are a robust, forced response to sea surface temperatures.