By Risa Maeda
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's weather bureau said on Tuesday its climate models indicate there is a strong possibility the El Nino weather pattern, which is often linked to heavy rainfall and droughts, will emerge this summer.
The Japan Meteorological Agency changed the language in its monthly assessment of the six-month outlook for El Nino that it used in June, when it said it was more likely that normal weather patterns would prevail in Asia through to December.
"The chances are now high that the El Nino weather phenomenon will emerge in the summer," the agency said in a statement on its website.
Japan's summer typically lasts from June through August.
The last severe El Nino was in 1998, when the phenomenon caused more than 2,000 deaths and wrought billions of dollars in damage to crops, infrastructure and mines in Australia and other parts of Asia.
The U.S. Climate Prediction Center said last week El Nino may strike as early as the third quarter of 2012, raising prospects of havoc from weather being wreaked from North and South America to Asia.
The center's monthly report was the strongest prediction yet for the emergence of the weather phenomenon this year.
Last month, it issued an El Nino watch, warning the phenomenon may materialize in the second half of the year, but said conditions were still neutral between June and August.
El Nino is a 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.
Global food production may suffer massive disruptions from the warming caused by El Nino.
Three years ago, it slowed development of India's vital monsoon rains, sparking a rally in sugar prices to 30-year highs as the No. 2 producer in the world produced a poor cane crop.
Malaysia, the world's second-largest palm oil producer, may have lower output in 2013 if the El Nino results in poor rainfall. China, a key buyer of overseas corn in recent years, may be forced to step up imports.
Australian wheat production could also be hit if the country experiences lower-than-average rainfall.
Unwanted rains damage crops in agricultural powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina, while the normally dry areas of Chile, the world's No. 1 copper producer, could see rampant floods.
Brazil is the world's biggest producer of sugar, coffee and soybeans. Argentina is a major soybean exporter.
El Nino, which means 'little boy' in Spanish, was first noticed by anchovy fishermen in Latin America in the 19th century.
(Additional reporting by Rene Pastor; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Chris Gallagher)