With a weary eye on the warming waters of the Pacific Ocean, scientists are warning that the largest El Niño event in two decades will bring severe drought, flooding, and food shortages that will spur economic suffering and migration in an already strained global environment.
With peak temperatures expected in January or February, Oxfam America has estimated that the "Super El Niño" could cause at least 10 million of the world's poorest people to go hungry, while an additional four million people across the Pacific could find themselves without water. Signaling the likelihood of worst-case scenarios along the equator, NASA climatologist Bill Patzert has said that this year's El Niño is "too big to fail."
"Right now, it's forecasted to be on par with the warmest El Niño event ever," said Travis Wilson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. The strongest prior El Niño event, recorded in 1997 and 1998, is estimated to have caused the death of 23,000 people as well as $45 billion worth of damage worldwide.
The El Niño phenomenon, which has diverse, wide-reaching global effects, is caused by slowed trade winds that create warmer waters in the equatorial Pacific. In general, the shift in water temperatures and atmospheric patterns brings more precipitation to countries in North and South America, while causing drought in East Africa as well as countries such as Australia and Indonesia.
California state climatologist Michael Anderson and his team have been monitoring the section of the Pacific between Peru and the international dateline, known as the El Niño 3.4 region. The temperature of this section of the Pacific, he said, is most closely correlated to the El Niño conditions observed in the United States.
"To qualify as an El Niño event, the water needs to be half a degree Celsius above average for a period of six months," Anderson said. "This has been going on since March of this year, and current observations show this region to be 2.4 degrees Celsius above average — if it is 1.5 degrees Celsius above average, they call that a strong event, and we're quite a bit above that."
Rain in the drought-stricken Golden State is welcomed by farmers, who have for several years been enduring one of the most severe droughts on record. But as Anderson explains, heavy rains from El Niño will not only fail to replenish groundwater supplies depleted by the drought, they could also come at a heavy cost in other parts of the state and country that are less equipped for the precipitation.
"The tradeoffs are the storm-related impacts — how heavy the rains come in, the wind, if there are any local landslides," he added, referencing storm events in Texas and Oklahoma this spring that were consistent with these warming patterns.
While parched California prepares for rain, Australia, which has endured many years of drought, looks set for warmer, drier weather. Climatologists down under say that local conditions closely resemble those from the 1982 and 1983 El Niño event, when wildfires killed an estimated 75 people, burned 2,500 houses, and cost the country more than $10 billion in economic losses.
The devastation during the 1983 event was especially severe for local farmers, according to climate expert and CSIRO chief research scientist Wenju Cai, who said that many producers committed suicide as a result. While the government has put in place some financial aid packages for farmers, he warns that this year could be on track to have similar economic and human costs.
"In September, we had half the normal amount of rainfall and just last week, in early October, we saw a huge heat wave hit Melbourne and Sydney," Cai said. "Those who will be hit are the most vulnerable — the elderly, for example, and on the socio-economic spectrum, those who are not well-positioned in financial terms to deal with this sort of extreme weather."
But the regional impacts of the weather event can vary greatly. In Papua New Guinea, which lacks the wealth and infrastructure of Australia, El Niño has already left its mark, with 24 people confirmed dead from starvation and drinking water contamination. In a country that produces 83 percent of its own food, two provinces have already declared a state of emergency.
"Australia, after all, is quite a rich country, so we have the capacity to deal with this," Cai added.
Watch the VICE News documentary Flooding Fields in California's Drought:
For many countries in Africa and Central America that are largely rural, this especially powerful El Niño is expected to compound what were already dire climate conditions and long-standing droughts. Last year saw record high temperatures across the globe.
"1997, when we had one of our most powerful El Niño events, was not preceded by a year like the one we just had, and we are concerned that this will strain the humanitarian system," said Heather Coleman, climate manager for Oxfam America. She estimated that in Ethiopia alone, there are 4.5 million in need of food aid. "Food insecurity could exacerbate drivers of migration that already exist."
In a study published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change, Cai estimated that such extreme weather events are expected to double in the period between 1990 and 2090. The forecast, based on a set of 20 climate models, is being used to call for governmental action and international coordination to curb the effects of climate change.
"Climatologists have been telling us that the climate system is going to be strained, and that is going to impact people in these ecosystems," said Coleman. "This year, we have seen some governments step up to put a global framework into place, so the world is starting to respond. But the question is how quickly, and will it be enough."
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