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Increase in super El Niños will impact the poorest most

Posted by John Magrath Programme Researcher

31st Jan 2014

A satellite image of the super El Niño of 1997-1998. The seesaw-like effect of an El Niño, with sea level along the equator down in the west and up in the eastern Pacific, can be seen in this image. White and red indicate higher-than-normal sea levels (warm water) and purple represents lower-than-normal sea height and cooler water. Credit: NASA/JPL

Scientists may have cracked a big climate puzzle:  whether rising global temperatures will influence the weather phenomenon known as El Niño. Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. Here, John Magrath explains why more extreme weather is likely to worsen the inequality of risk.

El Niño is a warming of the waters of the Pacific that happens roughly every four to seven years and creates a tongue of warm water that spreads from west to east (its counterpart, La Niña, is a corresponding cooling current). It influences weather worldwide, bringing more extremes.

Now Dr Wenju Cai and his team of international colleagues calculate that the number of El Niños will stay much the same - but when they occur twice as many of them as before will be more intense and become "extreme" or super El Niños and therefore, "we should expect more occurrences of devastating weather events, which will have pronounced implications for twenty-first century climate".

For twenty-first century people too.

"Crops from Spain to Indonesia have been withered by drought and homes from Brazil to Polynesia have been wrecked by floods".I was aghast when I saw the reports because I remember the super El Niño of 1982-83 and how that caused a global food crisis, and the El Niño of 1997-8 which had terrible effects. I came to work at Oxfam in 1985, in the wake of the famines in the Horn of Africa that were partly caused by a succession of droughts associated with the 82-83 event.

The crazy weather around the world in 1982-83 prompted Oxfam to issue a now worryingly prescient report called Weather Alert that warned of "a world-wide climate of change". Unprecedented climate extremes hit agriculture in Australia, South Africa and the USA. More than 40 countries suffered from floods or droughts. As the report explained: "Crops from Spain to Indonesia have been withered by drought and homes from Brazil to Polynesia have been wrecked by floods".

Peru is a country that is often first and worst hit by extreme weather and 1982-83 brought particularly severe drought to the highlands and devastated the potato crop, the staple food of the poor.  Extreme heat increased cases of children suffering from dehydration, and many died. Families lost their homes and jobs, lost or sold their possessions, and couldn't afford either food or medicines. Oxfam field staff also reported how "the exceptionally warm waters heated the lower atmosphere and formed a vapour which condensed and unleashed violent storms that created havoc along the Pacific coast from California to Chile".

In 1997-98 the super El Niño lopped 17 million tonnes off global harvest and raised the number of countries facing food emergencies from 26 to 40 by the end of 1998. Across the Pacific, Indonesia was especially hard hit by the worst drought in half a century that sent food prices rocketing and saw 7.5 million poor people facing food shortages.

We have to get to the heart of the problem - and that is inequality as much as climate change.The implications of super El Niños happening perhaps every 10 years instead of every 20 are truly worrying. Development will be knocked back, the poor - already suffering from increasingly erratic weather patterns - hit hardest and countless lives will be put at risk. During both previous super El Niños the international humanitarian aid system was strained to its limits. Oxfam faced unprecedented calls on its capacities and funds.

The world must get off its path of burning every last bit of fossil fuel. Fundamentally though, we have to get to the heart of the problem - and that is inequality as much as climate change. A recent Oxfam report looks at resilience and the inequality of risk. It finds that for poor people, risk is increasing dramatically because they are most exposed to both environmental and economic risk, from floods to food prices.

National and international emergency responses have, generally, got better over the last quarter of a century but there is still a long way to go in disaster risk reduction and in emergency response

Unfortunately, we may not get much warning about the next super El Niño. A monitoring system of moored buoys that registers temperatures across the tropical Pacific was set up after the 1982-83 El Niño but Professor Cai says the coverage is collapsing, due to US government budget cuts.

Read more

Photos:

  • A satellite image of the super El Niño of 1997-1998. The seesaw-like effect of an El Niño, with sea level along the equator down in the west and up in the eastern Pacific, can be seen in this image. White and red indicate higher-than-normal sea levels (warm water) and purple represents lower-than-normal sea height and cooler water. Credit: NASA/JP

Blog post written by John Magrath

Programme Researcher

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