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El Niño 1997

As the current El Niño event develops, impacts are being felt in many parts of the tropics and subtropics. The event is forecast to last through to at least February or March 1998 before waning.

As early as March 1997, scientists warned that the current El Niño event could intensify drought conditions throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. By mid-year, Papua New Guinea was already experiencing severe drought. With no rainfall since March, the continuing drought has placed one million people at risk of starvation. In Irian Jaya over 400 people are reported to have died from malnutrition.

In July 1997 the first forest fires began in East Kalimantan in Indonesia. Deliberately started to clear forest and aggravated by drought, many fires spread out of control. In late October fires were still burning, smothering a large part of Southeast Asia in smog. Peat fires continued to smoulder through to December.

The total figure of forest, plantation and scrubland destroyed in Indonesia may have been as high as 1.5 million acres. Hospitals in smog-affected areas had to cope with many people suffering from respiratory problems and sales of masks soared.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, Somalia has been hit by torrential rains. Over southern Africa, drought is the main concern and there is fear that the maize harvest may be halved. A special committee for disaster management has been established in South Africa.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that “related weather extremes could have a serious impact on the 1998 harvests.” Commodity prices have already been affected by concern about adverse effects on grain, tea, coffee and cocoa production.

In South America, the World Bank is making available a US$150 million emergency loan to Peru to cover anticipated costs. A drop in economic growth from six to five per cent for 1998 is forecast due to the reduced fish catch, drought in the south, and flooding in the north.

Tropical storm frequencies have also responded to El Niño with numbers increasing over the eastern Pacific as the warm Pacific currents, the prime source of energy for these storms, push further north than usual. California was hit by the first of what may prove a series of severe winter storms at the end of the first week in December.

Some regions have escaped the consequences of the 1997 El Niño. There appears, for example, to have been little effect on the Indian monsoon. Other areas have experienced beneficial effects. Hurricane numbers have been very low in the Atlantic sector and Japan is expecting a mild winter.

On the Web

For the latest assessment of the 1997/98 El Niño event and background information, see the NOAA Office of Global Programs site and links therein. You can monitor progress of the current event through the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) or the NOAA Office of Global Programs animation. The latest news can be found through Infoseek or Yahoo.

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