2014 could be an El Niño year. This weather event has historically caused devastations across countries. Its mysterious nature is keeping scientists and policy makers on their toes. Jyotsna Singh unravels uncertainties surrounding El Niño and its possible impact on Indian monsoon
Pray before you sow
After a scorching May this year, the month of June, which is marked by the onset of monsoon, proved to be one of the driest for India since record keeping began over a 100 years ago. This was followed by a warning from the newly elected BJP government at the Centre about the possibility of a drought-like situation in western India, and directives to the states to roll out their contingency plans.
The warning could not have come at a worse time. In a year when world economies are struggling to tame food inflation and the US, Australia and parts of Africa are trying to overcome prolonged droughts, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has issued a warning to prepare for an inclement weather. “An El Niño episode will continue to develop over the coming weeks and months. This will strongly affect the weather and the pattern of droughts and floods in many parts of the world. Countries must prepare carefully for the likely impacts, including on human safety, agriculture and fisheries,” warns Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of WMO.
The weather fluctuation is not new. It returns at random intervals of two to seven years. The phenomenon begins as an abnormal warming of tropical eastern Pacific Ocean along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador towards April (see infograph). But no one knows why this happens. By December the warm Pacific currents alter the worldwide climate by hindering the flow of trade winds, which encircle the earth along the equator, blowing from high-pressure belts in the east to low-pressure zones in the west. The result is heavy rains and floods in South and North Americas, drought in South Asia and Australia, and mixed extreme weather events in Africa (see `Drought, flood and uncertainties').
In India, El Niño is typically associated with patchy monsoon and drought. India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast a below normal rainfall during the summer monsoon. In a country where 60 per cent of farms are rain-fed, weak rains could lower agricultural output, resulting in a spike in inflation. This poses a major challenge for the country's newly elected government of Narendra Modi. Its four key Union ministries—agriculture, food, fertilisers and water resources—and state governments are frantically preparing to deal with any possible failure of monsoon. Contingency plans have been chalked out in 500 districts, where authorities are preparing nurseries for short-duration crops that can withstand low rainfall, issuing location-specific advisories and monitoring the situation closely.
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Given the fallouts of El Niño, economical, social and political, weather agencies around the world have employed most advanced technologies like satellite observations and weather buoys and keep a paparazzi-like watch for the climate phenomenon. The US has even deployed ships in the El Niño formation area for real-time measurement of any anomaly in the sea surface temperature. “Yet we have hardly moved much since the British scientist Gilbert Walker provided the first clue of El Niño in early 1900s,” says Balaji Rajagopalan, professor of civil, environment and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, US.
“We are monitoring sea surface warming of the El Niño region on a day to day basis,” says B P Yadav, director of IMD. “This helps us know the impact of El Niño on monsoon.”
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