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19 Nov 15 13:58

Kin Hubbard, an early 20th century American journalist, once said, "Don't knock the weather. If it didn't change once in a while, 9 out of 10 people couldn't start a conversation." 

The current El Niño, which is shaping up to rival the 1982/83 and 1997/98 El Niños in terms of intensity, has certainty kicked off a sustained conversation. From trade publications to the mainstream media to science blogs, El Niño is now a very hot topic. This phenomenon and its associated impact was also the theme of the 2015 El Nino Conference I recently attended at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) in mid-November. IRI focuses on the impact of weather and climate on society, and El Niño is certainly a phenomenon whose impacts go far beyond the weather.

El Niño, characterized by a warming of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean, influences extreme weather events globally via changes it induces to the large-scale weather patterns. It has implications for tropical cyclone activity, namely in the Atlantic and Pacific, floods, heat waves and droughts. We've already seen the effects of the 2015 El Niño. For example, the Pacific hurricane/typhoon season has broken records, with 10 hurricanes of Cat 3 intensity or higher in the East Pacific (one being Hurricane Patricia, the most powerful hurricane ever observed), and 14 named storms either forming in or entering the Central Pacific.

El Niño's impact on developed economies is well publicized; heat waves in Australia and floods in California have made the most headlines. Many hope that the current El Niño will be the solution to California's on-going and severe drought. Less well publicized, but of even greater importance, are the impacts of El Niño on developing economies. The incidence of floods and droughts in these vulnerable countries can have implications far beyond property damage; public health, food security and even political instability can either be induced or amplified by El Niño events. 

We've already witnessed this historically; President Suharto of Indonesia was deposed in the wake of the 1997/98 El Niño, which caused an extreme drought and severe wildfires. Prior to the drought, the situation in the country was already precarious, due to weaknesses in the economy and increasing ethnic tensions between Chinese Indonesians and non-Chinese Indonesians. The drought caused by the 1997/98 El Niño was the tipping point, leading to a political uprising and violence in the country.

The 1997/98 El Niño also led to a devastating outbreak of malaria in Kenya. El Niño causes an increase in extreme precipitation and flood events in the Horn of Africa, and malaria thrives in warm, moist and unsanitary environments. 

The world is certainly different than it was in 1997/98. The World Health Organization has made great strides in addressing malaria in Africa, and more countries have transitioned from autocracies to democracies. However, even within the context of our current world, there are reasons to be concerned about the current El Niño. 

Here are a few reasons:

* Since 1997/98, the population has increased by 1.3 billion, with the poor urban population growing the fastest. An analysis by Marc Levy from Columbia University finds that there are 230 million additional people living in El Niño sensitive areas. 

* The Middle East, a highly unstable geopolitical area, is prone to drought during El Niño years; any further stress to the region could lead to further food shortages, violence and humanitarian crises.

* The economy of China is slowing down, resulting in price pressure on commodities from Latin America. The combination of decreased demand for commodities from Latin America by China, coupled with the impact of El Niño in South America, could affect the financial stability of these middle-income countries.

* In California, where everyone hopes for a drought-busting winter, El Niño can be potentially problematic; the ground in California is so dry and non-porous that if rain falls too heavily in a short period of time, it'll simply run off, causing landslides and damage rather than replenishing the reservoirs, ground water and soil moisture. 

The impacts of El Niño clearly extend well beyond the weather. We, as a global society, must not only be aware of them, but also prepare for them in months ahead.


Category: Food security: Farming, Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Drought, Floods/storms, Resilience

Location: Pacific Ocean


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