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Updated: June 12, 2014 19:42 IST

Strongest in 15 years, 2014 El Niño could hit India hard

    Damian Carrington in London
    Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
    Graham Readfearn in Brisbane
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India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains, followed by further scorching droughts in Australia and collapsing fisheries off South America. But U.S. sees it as the ‘great wet hope’.

The El Niño weather phenomenon, which can cause global famines, floods and even wars, has a 90 per cent chance of striking this year, according to the latest forecast released to the Guardian.

El Niño begins as a giant pool of warm water swelling in the eastern tropical Pacific that sets off a chain reaction of weather events around the world, some devastating and some beneficial.

India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains, followed by further scorching droughts in Australia and collapsing fisheries off South America. But some regions could benefit, in particular the U.S., where El Niño is seen as the “great wet hope”, bringing rains that could break the searing drought in the west.

The knock-on effects can impact even more widely, from cutting global gold prices to making England’s World Cup footballers sweat a little more.

The latest prediction is from the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, which is considered one the most reliable of the 15 or so prediction centres around the world. “It is very much odds-on for an event,” said Tim Stockdale, principal scientist at the centre, who said 90 per cent of their scenarios deliver an El Niño. “The amount of warm water in the Pacific is now significant, perhaps the biggest since the 1997-98 event.” That El Niño was the biggest in a century, producing the hottest year on record at the time and major global impacts, including a mass die-off of corals.

“But what is very much unknowable at this stage is whether this year’s El Niño will be a small event, a moderate event — that’s most likely — or a really major event,” said Dr. Stockdale, adding the picture will become clearer in the next month or two. “It is which way the winds blow that determines what happens next and there is always a random element to the winds.” The movement of hot, rain-bringing water to the eastern Pacific, ramps up the risk of downpours in nations flanking that side of the great ocean, while the normally damp western flank dries out. Governments, commodity traders, insurers and aid groups such as the Red Cross and World Food Programme all monitor developments closely. Water conservation and food stockpiling is already underway in some countries.

Professor Axel Timmermann, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, argues that a major El Niño is more likely than not because of the specific pattern of winds and warm water being seen in the Pacific: “In the past, such alignments have always triggered strong El Niño events.”

El Niño events occur every five years or so, peaking in December and the first, and potentially greatest, human impacts are felt in India. The reliance of its 1 billion-strong population on the monsoon, which usually sweeps up over the southern tip of the sub-continent around June 1, has led its monitoring to be dubbed “the most important weather forecast in the world”. This year, it is has got off to a delayed start, with the first week’s rains 40 per cent below average”. El Niño could be quite devastating for agriculture and the water supply in India,” said Nick Klingaman, an El Niño expert at the University of Reading.

Research last month showed the global impact of El Niño events on food supplies, with corn, rice and wheat yield much lower than normal, though soybean harvests tend to rise. While food production has improved in the last year, El Niño could reverse that trend, according to Leo Abruzzese, global forecasting director for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It may reduce agricultural output over the next few years, which could weigh on global food security”. Drought linked to the 2007 El Niño led to a surge in food prices in 2008 that sparked riots in countries as far afield as Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti.

After India, El Niño’s impacts roll east and officials in Cebu, the Philippines’ second city, have urged all households to save water to reduce the impact of the drier weather due by the end June. In Malaysia, the national water authority is preparing for a dry spell of up to 18 months.

The hot, dry skies will then track to Australia, where 2013 was its hottest year. Andrew Watkins, manager of climate prediction services at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, said: “El Niño is one of the largest influences on Australia’s climate.”

‘Great wet hope’

However, in the U.S., El Niño holds out the prospect of relief for the western states and nowhere is more desperate for rain than California. The entire State is in severe or extreme drought, after receiving barely a quarter of its annual rainfall, and communities have been under water rations since March, ordinarily still the rainy season. A strong El Niño would bring rain, typically double the annual average in southern California.

“I commonly refer to El Niño as the great wet hope,” said Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “Everyone in the west has their fingers crossed because we are bone dry.” However, big El Niños like the 1997-98 event — what Patzert calls “Godzillas” — are rare and forecasters at the U.S. government’s climate prediction centre said on June 5 that time was running out for a significant El Niño to be set in train.

— © Guardian News & Media 2014

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