NEW YORK, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The softs complex dominated gains in commodities markets on Wednesday as cocoa hit 2-1/2-year highs while raw sugar and arabica coffee rallied on factors ranging from bullish crop weather to an India government subsidy and investor speculation. Base metals also advanced strongly, with nickel, aluminium and copper prices all rising by more than 1 percent after top metals buyer China unveiled record imports data for January. A debt limit deal reached by the U.S. Congress and market-friendly comments this week from the Federal Reserve's new chief also supported metals. Crude oil, gasoline and gold gained slightly to join commodities in the positive territory.
Only a few commodities markets closed lower, including wheat , which saw profit-taking after Monday's run higher on worries about tightening supply. The Thomson Reuters/Core Commodity Index settled half a percent higher for a second straight day. Thirteen of the 19 markets tracked by the commodities bellwether ended higher. Cocoa futures in New York and London hit 2-1/2-year highs on worries that potential El Niño weather conditions could curb global cocoa output. The Australian weather bureau and the Climate Prediction Center (CPC), a U.S. weather forecaster, have said there is an increasing chance of an El Niño weather pattern emerging later this year. El Niño can cause flooding and heavy rains in the United States and South America and drought in Southeast Asia and Australia. "During El Niño years, global production is lower than it would otherwise be," said Jonathan Parkman, joint head of agriculture at brokerage Marex Spectron. Parkman said the emergence of the weather pattern early this spring could affect the current 2013-14 crop as well as plantings in the next season. The benchmark second-month cocoa futures contract in New York, May, gained $43, or 1.3 percent, to settle at $2,971 a tonne. It hit a 2-1/2-year high of $2,974 during the session. In London, May cocoa closed up 13 pounds, or 0.7 percent, at 1,867 pounds a tonne. The session high was 1,871 pounds, the month's highest since September 2011. Raw sugar prices jumped after India's government agreed to give millers a production subsidy that could reduce output from the world's second-largest sugar producer. New York's most-active raw sugar contract, March, closed at 15.81 cents per lb, up 0.35 cent, or 2.3 percent, for its sharpest daily gain for this month. Arabica coffee rallied as traders covered short positions ahead of options expiry, said Hector Galvan, senior softs broker at RJO Futures in Chicago. Prices also found support from worries that dry conditions in Brazil have hurt coffee crops. MDA Weather Services said on Wednesday that dryness remains a "major concern" in Brazil's coffee regions. Arabica coffee's May contract in New York closed up 3.7 cents, or 2.7 percent, at $1.4315 per lb.
(Editing by G Crosse)