Next two years may see long and strong El Niño

The phenomenon is expected to deepen the agrarian crisis with a depleted monsoon

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Tuesday 18 December 2018

Looking at the recent and past trends of cyclonic activity around El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, it’s possible that 2019 and 2020 will witness an elongated El Niño.

The ongoing cyclone Phethai is the seventh cyclone to form in the Indian Ocean region this year and the fourth to have formed in the Bay of Bengal and have made landfall along the East Indian coast. All these four storms—Daye, Titli, Gaja and Phethai—formed and dissipated in different months. Daye hit Odisha in September, Titli devastated the same state along with Andhra Pradesh in October, Gaja surprised Tamil Nadu with its destructive ability in November and Phethai made landfall in Andhra Pradesh in December.

Such periodicity in the formation of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal was last seen 33 years ago in 1985, according to historical data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD). There are also other parallels between 1985 and 2018. In both these years, there were seven cyclones in the Indian Ocean region—the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

This cyclonic activity of 1985 happened just after two consecutive weak La Nina events in 1983-84 and 1984-85. La Nina is the opposite of an El Nino event and is characterised by the unusual cooling of the central and east central equatorial Pacific Ocean. The cyclonic activity in 2018 also happened post two weak La Nina years of 2016-17 and 2017-18.

Before the La Nina events there was a very strong El Niño event in 1982-83, similar to the very strong El Nino event in 2015-16.

Now, the increased cyclonic activity of 1985 was followed by the moderate El Niño year of 1986-87 and the strong El Niño year of 1987-88. It also foreshadowed the severe drought of 1987 which was then described as the worst in decades. Though the cause of the drought was identified as a bad monsoon and was in turn blamed on weird weather anomalies that year, there was no mention of the El Niño phenomenon.

As the El Niño and La Nina events happen in broad cycles and are also closely associated with the formation of tropical cyclones, 2019 and 2020 could both end up being El Niño years similar to what happened in 1986-87 and 1987-88.

The last El Niño phenomenon, which lasted from 2014 to 2016, was also preceded by an increased cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal in 2013. There were four cyclones between October and December in that year. This elongated El Niño caused massive coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, droughts in parts of Africa, South East Asia and South America and heat waves in India.

Even 2018 is an evolving El Niño year. Moderate El Niño conditions are already prevailing in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, says the IMD. This is going to continue for the next couple of months. The El Niño has already had an effect on the winter season with warmer than usual temperatures and is expected to deepen the agrarian crisis next year because of a depleted monsoon season. An elongated El Niño phenomenon will mean an even greater crisis in India and major changes in weather conditions all around the world.

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