By Anjleena Sahni
In recent years, the global climate has been an increasingly dominant topic of conversation. As floods, typhoons, and hurricanes plague nations around the world, a close watch has been kept on any abnormal weather patterns. One of these observed patterns is El Niño, a centuries old phenomenon characterized by a warming of the surface layers in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Generally, El Niño is known as the warming of waters along the Pacific equator. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), El Niño occurs about every two to seven years, developing from April through June and manifesting in December through February. During El Niño, the physical relationships between trade winds, currents, and oceanic/atmospheric temperature break from their regular patterns, wreaking havoc on the biosphere and weather conditions around the world (“The TAO Project…”). I will explain what causes El Niño, and how this inexplicable phenomenon affects different parts of the globe.
The normal pattern of Pacific trade winds are to blow from east to west, dragging warm surface water westward with them. Just east of Indonesia, the warm surface waters form a deep pool. In a process known as upwelling, colder waters containing essential nutrients rise to the surface, nourishing organisms that would otherwise not survive. However for unknown reasons, the trade winds occasionally relax, or even reverse direction. In response, the warm surface waters from the pool formed east of Indonesia begin to shift eastward (“NOAA/PMEL/TAO…”). These warm surface waters essentially act as a cap, preventing the nutrient rich cold water from upwelling. Phytoplankton, the foundation of the marine food chain, starve, along with dependent fish and mammals higher up on the food chain (“What is El Niño…”).
The most recent forecast, put forth by Colombia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), confirms, “All atmospheric variables strongly support the El Niño pattern, including weakened trade winds and excess rainfall in the east-central tropical Pacific” (“2015 October Quick Look”). The consensus of prediction models is that strong El Niño conditions will continue through the season, with peak temperatures in January or February. Currently, this year’s El Niño is forecasted to be on par with the El Niño of 1997, the strongest on record. The general prediction, based on patterns of the past, is that North and South America will experience more precipitation and possible storm-like conditions, while East Africa, Australia, and Indonesia face drought (“NOAA/PMEL/TAO…”).
The significance of El Niño lies with its wide reaching global effects; the disruption of local weather patterns have profound consequences around the world, often affecting the most vulnerable groups. In 1982, 25% of the adult fur seal and sea lion populations along the coast of Peru starved to death. All of the pups in both populations died, and fish populations were similarly affected. In the western Pacific, changes in sea level exposed the upper layers of many coral reefs in surrounding islands, allowing air to erode and destroy them (“NOAA/PMEL/TAO…”). Economic impacts are equally critical. The El Niño of 1982-83 is estimated by the NOAA to have caused about 8 billion dollars in damages due to floods, severe storms, droughts, and fires around the world. In the same year, wildfires killed an estimated 75 people and burned 2,500 houses in Australia alone. Countries with fewer resources to cope with the climate conditions, such as nearby Papua New Guinea, are affected even more drastically (“ (“‘Super’ El Niño…”). Largely rural areas in Africa and Central America, already suffering from problematic climate conditions and persistent drought, face aggravated circumstances with the predicted “super” El Niño. In the worst-case scenario, drought and starvation could become push factors, driving people out of their countries in search of refuge(“‘Super’ El Niño…”). With the current migration crises in Europe and the Middle East, additional thousands of displaced migrants would cause pandemonium, exacerbating the precarious political and economic situations in each region. It is impossible to make an exact prediction, but this year’s event could potentially bring drought, typhoons, landslides, or any number of the weather conditions that have been observed in the past. Although its effects are unpredictable, the patterns of the past indicate that this year’s “super” El Niño could have some serious ramifications worldwide, both ecologically and economically.
“2015 October Quick Look.” International Research Institute for Climate and Society. 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
“NOAA/PMEL/TAO: The El Niño Story.” NOAA/PMEL/TAO: The El Niño Story. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
“‘Super’ El Niño Looks Set to Ruin the Lives of Many of the World’s Most Vulnerable People | VICE News.” VICE News RSS. VICE News. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
“The TAO Project: Definitions of El Nino.” The TAO Project: Definitions of El Nino. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
“What Is El Nino? Fact Sheet: Feature Articles.” What Is El Nino? Fact Sheet: Feature Articles. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center