The current El Niño, a weather pattern of devastating droughts and catastrophic floods that can affect tens of millions of people around the globe, is expected to strengthen further by year’s end, on track to be one of the three strongest in 65 years, according to the latest update from the United Nations weather agency.
But the world is better prepared than ever to deal with the phenomenon, caused by the cyclical warming of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, even though global warming has added a wild card to forecasting the severity of its impact, UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud told a news conference in Geneva today [16 November 2015].
“It’s not entirely clear how El Niño interacts with the changing climate,” he said, warning that it is playing out in uncharted territory due to global warming. “Even before the onset of El Niño, global average surface temperatures had reached new records. El Niño is turning up the heat even further.”
Based on advice from National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, the worst affected countries are already planning for the impact on agriculture, fisheries, water and health, and implementing disaster management campaigns to save lives and minimize economic damage and disruption, he added.
“Severe droughts and devastating flooding being experienced throughout the tropics and sub-tropical zones bear the hallmarks of this El Niño, which is the strongest for more than 15 years,” he said, noting that peak three-month average surface water temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean will exceed 2 degrees Celsius above normal.
But, he stressed: “We are better prepared for this event than we have ever been in the past.”
Various UN agencies have already issued warnings about the current El Niño, in which oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system significantly impacts global weather, from increased rain and flooding in the southern United States and Peru to drought in the West Pacific and devastating brush fires in Australia.
Last week the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water in eastern and southern Africa alone, while the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as El Niño exacerbates a prolonged drought.
A child and an elderly man stand on the roof of a building damaged when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March 2015. Photo: UNICEF/Vlad Sokhin
Jarraud released the update on the eve of an international scientific conference in New York, co-sponsored by WMO, which seeks to increase scientific understanding of El Niño the event and its impact, and boost resilience to anticipated global socio-economic shocks.
“Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change, the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometres of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere. So this naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced,” he warned.
El Niño has already been associated with a number of major impacts, including coral bleaching hitting US coral reefs disproportionately hard, and tropical cyclones in the Western and Eastern North Pacific basins, such as last month’s Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, reportedly the most intense tropical cyclone in the western hemisphere.
In South East Asia, El Niño is typically associated with drought and has helped fuel wildfires in Indonesia, among the worst on record, causing dense haze there and in neighbouring countries, with significant repercussions for health.
In South Asia, it is believed to have played a key role in a shortfall in rain and Southern Africa countries also report below average rainfall, drought conditions and fears of food insecurity.
In South America, El Niño tends to increase rainfall. In 1997-98 rains in central Ecuador and Peru were more than 10 times the normal, causing flooding, extensive erosion and deadly mudslides, destruction of homes and infrastructure, and damage to food supplies.
Three women plant seeds on a farm in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: World Bank/Maria Fleischmann
El Niño: 2.3 million Central Americans will need food aid
Some 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as the current El Niño weather pattern, one of the strongest on record, exacerbates a prolonged drought, the United Nations on 12 November 2015 warned in the latest alert on the impact of the phenomenon which causes floods in parts of the world and drought in others.
“Unfortunately, another dry spell in 2015, this time exacerbated by El Niño, has again caused significant losses during the first crop cycle, the Primera season,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Miguel Barreto said in Panama.
“This has hit small producers and their families who were struggling to recover from the previous year’s drought, and the number of people in need may increase soon.”
The WFP alert came just two days after UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Anthony Lake warned that 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water due to El Niño in eastern and southern Africa alone.
Barreto said $75 million is needed in Central America, where the drought has already lasted two years in the Dry Corridor that stretches from Guatemala to Nicaragua, but resources are being depleted. WFP assisted more than 200,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras last year.
More than 65 per cent of households in the ‘Dry Corridor’ had no food stocks left at the start of the 2015 Primera season and latest forecasts indicate a 100 per cent probability that the current El Niño, which has been active since last March, will continue through December and likely persist until early 2016.
WFP is grateful for critical support from Brazil, Canada, Chile, the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Switzerland and the United States, Barreto said.
“However, we estimate that increasing numbers of people will need sustained assistance through the 2016 Primera season – which starts every year in April and ends with the harvest in August and September,” he added.
Last week the UN World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it is ramping up efforts with regional offices and partners to help countries curb potential deaths, illness, malnutrition and psychosocial effects resulting from El Niño.
Noting that the current event is one of the strongest ever measured and that the last major El Niño in 1997/98 wrought widespread havoc and erased years of development gains, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is co-hosting an international scientific conference at Columbia University, New York, later this month to boost resilience.
“The world is much better prepared for this year’s El Niño, but the socio-economic shocks will still be profound,” the UN agency says.