Winds of change

El Nio, a weather phenomenon caused by a complex interaction between atmospheric and oceanic conditions has ushered in drought, forest fires and devastation this year

Published: Monday 15 December 1997

Winds of change

IMAGEGenesis of a crisis

In 1982-83, El Nio caused worldwide destruction. But the present one, scientists say, is the worst this century. Interestingly, commodity brokers and construction material firms stand to gain from this weather phenomenon

it has caused a severe drought in Australia and Papua New Guinea. It has led to a famine in South Africa. Hurricanes in Mexico are said to have been caused by this phenomenon. Floods in Peru are due to its movements. It has fuelled the forest fires in Indonesia and the Amazon. It has affected marine and wildlife. It has killed thousands and has rendered millions homeless.

Ironically, it is the "Christ child" which is causing all this devastation.

El Nio, which means "the little one" in Spanish was first recognised by fisherfolk off the coast of South America as early as the 19th Century. A warm current in the eastern Pacific brought in its wake the inexplicable death of thousands of fish. Since it normally became optimal around Christmas they called it the Christ child. The tiny micro-organisms which fish depend upon for food, were the first to die. The fish followed suit. Sharks retreated to the bottom of the ocean where the temperature was cooler. But worse was to follow.

Devastating rainstorms and floods would become the order of the day. In some areas the rains would cease and wind patterns could turn green pastures into deserts. Scientists today believe that the Atacama desert in Peru is the result of atmospheric activity associated with El Nio. In some regions there would be more than abundant rainfall. The rainforests of Borneo and Indonesia are supposed to owe their existence to this phenomenon. Social behaviour and eating habits of animals are also affected: from mating patterns between sea lions to eating patterns for marine iguanas, to the death of penguins and other flightless birds by starvation.

Cropping patterns also do not escape the wrath of El Nio, whether it is the corn harvest in Zimbabwe or the rice bowl of Asia. The weather patterns created by El Nio threaten food supplies in many Asian and Pacific rim countries.

Already a drought grips most areas of Southeast Asia and threatens to bring down the production of commercially important crops like coffee and palm oil. Mining activity dependent upon hydroelectric power has been suspended and weather patterns linked to El Nio could lead to a decline in the wheat yield in Australia which is at present leading to bushfires there.

Misinformation about the phenomenon could also end up costing businesses and consumers a lot of money in terms of cancelled vacations, a drop in tourism and even speculation on energy pricing in the hope of a mild winter. El Nio winters on the contrary can be brutal.

Satellite imaging and data gathering computers have shown that the tentacles of El Nio spread from the Pacific to vast areas in Australia, Africa and Asia which become susceptible to drought. In the North American continent specially from California to Florida heavy torrential winter rains can be expected. Memories of the arid tornadoes and torrential winter rains caused by the 1982-83 El Nio are still fresh in the minds of residents of southern California.

The planet is warming
Warm conditions have persisted in the tropical Pacific since July 1997. According to the World Meteriological Organisation ( wmo ), sea surface temperatures throughout the equatorial east-central Pacific increased during April and May, when temperatures normally decrease in this region. During August and September ocean surface temperatures reached near-record levels in many sections of the equatorial Pacific. Temperatures increased by four degrees along the Equator east of 120 w and increased by five degrees near the Galapagos Islands along the coast of northern Peru. Exotic warm water species of marine life such as the swordfish have been found as far north as in the state of Washington. Much to the delight of anglers a 130 kilogram goldfish was caught in Seattle and giant rainbow-striped anchovies and crabs are adding to the quality of the fishing there.

This delight is not mirrored in California where mass hysteria with regard to El Nio has gripped the populace at large which is readily lapping up quick-fix remedies promoted by unscrupulous marketing agents. As Californians prepare for an unusually brutal winter the demand for roofing material like gutters has gone up by more than 20 per cent. Manufacturers are doing roaring business in the selling of roof repair products.

According to Michael R Smith, the president of Weather Data Inc. a weather forecasting company located in Winchita in Kansas in the us , the situation has gone out of hand. "This is the best publicised potential disaster in history," he says. "People are drawing a very close parallel to 1982-83," he adds. "Some of the precautions like cleaning out flood control channels will pay off handsomely if there are problems," he nevertheless concludes.

Meanwhile, the weather is still dry. This presents dry condition means more wine. Wine lovers are definitely not whining over El Nio, nor is anyone in Bordeaux in France, where the empty bottles are now in short supply.

The flip side
As things stand the world is soon going to be divided into two groups, those who benefit from El Nio and those who don't stand to benefit from it.

The President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, has cast off his bullet-proof vest after having disposed off the terrorists at the Japanese embassy. He has now decided to take on "the little one" to boost his sagging image. Construction work is in full swing reinforcing the nation's dams and bridges as Peru prepares for a showdown with nature.

There is also a growing realisation that El Nio's adverse effects on the sugar crop will be limited in the current crop cycle. According to the International Sugar Organisation in the uk , the unseasonal rains have only marginally affected Australia's sugar crop. On the other hand, the phenomenon is expected to boost the yield in Brazil's north and northeast region bringing prosperity to Brazilian farmers. It is also hoped that the weather conditions will benefit farmers in the Philippines.

While there is bad news for cocoa farmers in Malaysia and Indonesia, the output of these countries is meagre compared to the Ivory Coast. Merrill Lynch in its commodity market trends report has stated that rain after a long dry spell in the Ivory Coast could lead to a bumper cocoa crop more than offsetting the losses sustained in these two countries.

While the Christ child has brought luck to Australian fisherfolk resulting in a bumper tuna catch, it has meant bad luck to Papua New Guinea where the catch has been much lower. Sea water temperatures that normally range between 23 c to 29 c have climbed to 37 c forcing many fish to migrate north in search of cooler water. The western Atlantic and Caribbean have also been uncharacteristically quiet in view of the fact that it has been dubbed the "hurricane alley". The eastern Pacific, however, has seen heightened storm activity.

The full picture is yet to emerge. According to Glenn McGregor, climate expert at the University of Birmingham's school of geography in uk : "The current El Nio is still in its early stages. It's certainly some months off its peak."

That El Nio definitely means good fortune for some is evident from the satisfied smiles of futures brokers who operate in the commodity market. Coffee futures soared and dropped creating ripples of hysteria in the market. A few days ago coffee beans were worth their weight in gold in the international market. Now that it is raining in Sumatra they are worth just beans.

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