Floods in the north of England, bushfires across Australia, snowstorms in the US and mudslides caused by torrential rain across Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. While many of us were enjoying our Christmas break in comfort this year, hundreds of thousands of people were feeling the very real impacts of extreme weather.
The clashing of weather fronts in Texas – which saw temperatures drop from a balmy 28 degrees Celsius to zero in the space of a weekend – claimed the lives of more than 40 thanks to the resulting blizzards and tornadoes. In South America, more than 150,000 people lost their homes.
There is a good explanation for these natural disasters that happened during the festive period: El Niño.
El Niño is a naturally occurring weather phenomenon that takes place in the Pacific Ocean every four to seven years, triggering an unimaginable series of short-term weather pattern changes. Basically, El Niño happens when there is a shift in trade winds along the equator, altering the surface air pressure between the east and west of the Pacific and causing water temperatures to rise.
It was fishermen that first noticed the waters off the west coast of South America getting warmer towards the end of the year back in the 1950s. They dubbed the phenomenon El Niño, which is Spanish for ‘the boy child,’ effectively naming it after baby Jesus due to its proximity to Christmas.
Of course, El Niño is not bad news for everybody. If you live in California, which is currently in the grip of a four-year-long drought, the extra rain and snow delivered is welcome relief. Whether the rains do their job of easing the worst drought in 1,200 years or merely run-off the parched land remains to be seen. But the snow packed into the Sierra Nevada mountain range – which delivers a third of the state’s water – is now measuring above average for the time of year. Last Spring, it measured just 5 per cent of the long-term average.
However, the impacts of El Niño are becoming stronger as the phenomenon gets more powerful. This latest one is the toughest yet measured, surpassing the one in 1997-98, both in terms of ocean surface temperature – up by more than 3 degrees Celsius – and the number of regions affected.
Super El Niño’s like this years has no doubt helped to make the planet warmer and 2015 the warmest year on record. But the reverse could also be true, with climate change contributing to and boosting the power of each El Niño. As Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, says: “This naturally occurring El Nino and human-induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced”.
Meanwhile, a recent study published in Nature claims that as our climate gets warmer, the impacts of El Niños will double in their extremity.
Given the financial cost of dealing with the after-effects of such extreme weather – the 1997-98 El Niño is thought to have cost Asian economies some $45 billion according to the Asian Development Bank – not to mention the lives and homes lost to millions, the boy child offers yet further cause to do something about our warming planet.
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