El Niño, the natural periodic weather event that increases global temperatures and disturbs weather patterns, this year has been the strongest on record. The phenomenon is expected to exacerbate droughts and flooding, with the worst effects likely to be observed in Africa, where food shortages are set to peak in February.
Dr Nick Klingaman from the University of Reading said, “In a lot of tropical countries we are seeing big reductions in rainfall of about 20-30%. Indonesia has experienced a bad drought; the Indian monsoon was about 15% below normal; and the forecasts for Brazil and Australia are for reduced monsoons”.
Around 31 million people are thought to be facing food insecurity in Africa, this number has increased significantly over the past year. The continual growth in both droughts and flooding, and the potential impacts these may cause, are a great concern for aid agencies. In Ethiopia alone, 10.2 million people are predicted to require humanitarian assistance in 2016.
Originally recognised in 1600 by fishermen in South America, El Niño occurs when the warm waters of the central Pacific expand eastwards towards the Americas. It is a part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, the opposite being La Niña (often referred to as the cold phase). Occurring every two to seven years, El Niño often peaks in the later months of the calendar year, although the effects can last for up to 12 months.
The current event is the strongest since 1998, and is predicted to be within the three most powerful ever recorded. At its peak, average water levels in the tropical Pacific are expected to be 2°C above normal.
The Department for International Development is beginning to take action. “If we fail to act now against this especially powerful El Niño, we will fail vulnerable people across our world”, claimed Nick Hurd, the UK International Development minister.
He continued, “Ensuring security for those affected by El Nino is important to their countries but also in Britain’s national interest. Only by protecting and stabilising vulnerable countries can we ensure people are not forced to leave their homes in search of food or a new livelihood”.
While the direct effects will mainly be felt in the developing world, the developed world will see impacts on food prices. In the past, food prices have increased by 5-10% during events, with coffee, rice, cocoa and sugar often significantly affected.
The El Niño event is expected to tail off in the spring, however, it is often followed by La Niña. This phenomenon can have opposite, but still harmful effects. Dr Klingaman said; “It’s possible but far from certain that this time next year we could be talking about the reverse of many of these impacts. In places where we are seeing droughts from El Niño, we could be seeing flooding from La Niña next year. It’s just as disruptive, it’s just the other way round”.