Thu, Mar 24, 2016 - Page 9 News List

El Nino upsets seasons and upends lives

Although a somewhat predictable weather event, the El Nino cycle can take regions by surprise, with intense drought starving millions in Ethiopia and a reduced monsoon forcing farmers from their land in Paraguay, weather is changing the way people live

By Henry Fountain  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Mountain People

In rural villages in Africa and Asia, and in urban neighborhoods in South America, millions of lives have been disrupted by weather linked to the strongest El Nino in a generation.

In some parts of the world, the problem has been not enough rain; in others, too much. Downpours were so bad in Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, that shantytowns sprouted along city streets, filled with families displaced by floods, but farmers in India had the opposite problem: Reduced monsoon rains forced them off the land and into day-labor jobs.

In South Africa, a drought hit farmers so hard that the country, which a few years ago was exporting corn to Asian markets, now needs to buy millions of tonnes of it from Brazil and other South American countries.

“They will actually have to import it, which is rare,” said Rogerio Bonifacio, a climate analyst with the World Food Program, a UN agency. “This is a major drought.”

The WHO has estimated that worldwide, El Nino-related weather is putting 60 million people at increased risk of malnutrition, water-and-mosquito-borne diseases and other illnesses.

Scientists began reporting early signs of El Nino conditions early last year, based on changes in surface-water temperatures and atmospheric pressure in the equatorial Pacific. By the middle of the year, the World Meteorological Organization declared that El Nino was in full swing and that it was on track to be the strongest such event since between 1997 and 1998.

An El Nino occurs on average every two to seven years, when warm Pacific water shifts eastward, creating an immense warm zone in the central and eastern Pacific. This adds heat and moisture to the air, which condenses high in the atmosphere, releasing energy that affects the high-altitude winds known as jet streams that circle the planet. The warmer the ocean, the more energy that can potentially be released.

One effect of the energy is that it alters the course of a jet stream. In the northern hemisphere, this can bring more winter storms to the southern US, including Southern California.

However, adding all that energy to the upper atmosphere can also introduce a ripple in a jet stream that might affect weather halfway around the world.

“It’s like waving a paddle back and forth in the stream and generating planetary-scale atmospheric waves,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist Michael McPhaden said.

That leads to patterns of precipitation, or lack of it, that can pop up in far-flung regions at different times — heavy rains in south-central South America from September to January, increased dryness in Central America for much of the year and a reduced summer monsoon in India, among other effects.

Because these patterns often recur in different El Nino years, the effects can be predictable. Nonetheless, they can still test the ability of governments and aid agencies to respond.

El Nino often affects parts of Ethiopia, for example, and this time was no exception. It is among the countries worst hit by drought, Bonifacio said, with as many as 10 million people in need of food assistance. Yet Ethiopia is handling the problems largely on its own.

“They made a decided effort to deal with the situation,” he said.

However, as the lack, so far, of prolonged rains in southern California this winter shows, the effects of El Nino can still be difficult to forecast.

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