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El Niño continues

El Niño continues to exert its influence over many parts of the world and forecasts indicate current conditions will continue through June 1998.

Signs that the current El Niño event might be waning following the peak in most indicators during the second half of 1997 proved short-lived. A “minor rally” occurred and, according to the assessment by the US Climate Diagnostics Center, has now mushroomed into a true second peak, surpassed only by the equivalent season’s peak during the record-breaking 1982/83 event.

During February 1998, rainfall was below normal over Southeast Asia and above normal on the coasts of North and South America. The continental contrast was marked, with the World Meteorological Organization reporting rainfall over much of Southeast Asia (and southern Africa) in the bottom ten per cent of driest Februarys while California and Peru’s rainfall was in the top ten per cent. This month saw the influence of El Niño spread to northern middle latitudes. Tropical air was pulled north as wind systems shifted bringing abnormal warmth to North America, Europe and eastern Asia.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that a near-record number of countries will face food supply emergencies this year, mainly because of El Niño. Africa remains the continent with the worst food shortages, the result of a combination of weather and civil strife.

Recent attention has been focused on the Sudan where the long-running civil war has left the population of the south in a very vulnerable condition. “The deprivation we have seen so far could very well be the beginning of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said David Fletcher, head of the World Food Progamme’s local operation. Over 350,000 people have been identified as being in dire need, and seeds and tools were urgently needed as the rainy season started so planting could take place.

El Niño-related flooding in Somalia, following poor harvests, has set back attempts there to improve food security (see Tiempo, Issue 26). In Kenya, flooding and an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever has resulted in human deaths and livestock losses. Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia have all been affected by crop losses. Over southern Africa, drought is the main concern.

In Southeast Asia, the UN World Food Programme has launched a US$88 million appeal for emergency aid to help meet the food shortfall in Indonesia, reeling from the effects of drought and the regional economic crisis. “The aim is to prevent the present food shortage from developing into a major food crisis,” said Catherine Bertini, the agency’s executive director. Riots have occurred over the rising cost of food with prices increasing by close to 50 per cent over the past year.

The Philippines has recently reported deaths related to food shortages and one million people in Mindanao are considered at risk as the rice and corn crops wither.

In Vietnam, farmers in southeastern provinces may lose 70 per cent of their cash crop harvest due to drought and lakes, dams and reservoirs are drying up. Southern Vietnam recorded its highest daily temperature for 80 years in late March as temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius and beyond.

To the north, cereal production in China has been affected and, in North Korea, drought following two years’ of floods has created a “most desperate food situation,” according to the FAO. To the south, Papua New Guinea has received food donations from Australia and New Zealand.

In South America, Brazil’s Civil Defense Bureau has warned farmers to be alert to possible crop damage during the harvest period. Three hundred people have died so far in the floods in Peru where crops have been hard hit by the current event. “I’m waiting for the earth to open up and swallow Peru. It’s the only thing that hasn’t happened,” said one farmer.

Drought, coupled with high temperatures, has seriously increased the threat of forest fires in many parts of the tropics and subtropics.

Forest fires are again spreading in Kalimantan, Indonesia, the source of the region-wide smog late last year. In Brunei, morning smog, dissipating in the afternoon winds, has become a common feature of the climate. In early April, smoke from fires in southern Vietnam was reported over peninsula Malaysia during episodes of northerly winds.

Across the world, in the north of Guatemala, peasants with spades and machetes fought the worst fires in memory — there being no capacity to fight the fires from the air — and the government declared a state of emergency.

On the financial front, the Asia Development Bank (ADB) has warned that the current El Niño event could seriously affect several regional economies this year. A fall of one percent in 1998 output is projected for countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. ADB estimated worldwide damage at US$20 billion.

Current statistical and model forecasts suggest that the El Niño event, and related patterns of temperature, rainfall and other weather anomalies, will persist until June 1998. The event will then weaken over the months of July to September.

Finally, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have shown that El Niño slows down the Earth’s rotation, making the day 0.4 milliseconds longer. The effect occurs as the westerly winds in the atmosphere speed up and steal momentum from the solid Earth.

On the Web

El Niño and the Southern Oscillation


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