This year, July was a month of record heat in several areas of the world - which Veridica reported at the time. The main feature of July 2023 seems to have been the early onset of hot days, which usually occur only after the settling in of the warm season, and not at its very beginning, as was the case this time. The month of August took over the pattern, with "plateaus" of high temperatures in several regions and continents, including Romania. Experts have cited a number of causes for the recent records, including the El Niño phenomenon, a periodic process of unusual warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean that triggers drought, storms and floods in East Asia, northern Australia and the American West, and raises global temperature.
But most of the effects caused by El Niño will only be seen next year; that's why it's called El Niño, after the baby Jesus, because it only reaches its maximum potential around Christmas. The natural phenomenon represented by El Niño overlaps with an "artificial" one, of climate change caused by human activities. What might emerge from such a cocktail is still unknown to experts, but an estimate can be made now: if 2023 has the chance to become the warmest year on record, 2024 could be even warmer, with an average temperature approaching the threshold of 1.4 degrees Celsius above the level recorded in the pre-industrial era. Such a scenario is by no means implausible, and some governments and non-governmental organizations have begun to prepare themselves in case this happens.
The El Niño impact: “an unprecedented year in terms of global temperatures”
Simply put, El Niño is the phenomenon by which the warmer waters in the depth of the ocean are brought to the surface. There is also the opposite, "female" version of El Niño, called La Niña, in which the cooler waters reach the surface. El Niño and La Niña follow and complement each other every few years. For example, the previous El Niño occurred in 2018-2019, and the one before it spanned two winters, between 2014-2016. A La Niña cycle occurred between the two.
As with storms or earthquakes, there are scales to measure the intensity of El Niño events. A certain area in the Pacific known as "Niño 3.4" is taken as a benchmark. If the water surface temperature in this area exceeds the norm by 1.5 degrees Celsius, then El Niño is a "strong" one. If it exceeds 2°C, then we are dealing with a "severe" El Niño. The 2018-2019 El Niño stood at +0.9°C; instead, the one from 2014-2016 reached +2.6°C. NOAA, the US government weather agency, has predicted that the current El Niño, which started in June, will be a "strong" one. But it has also said that it is a 30% chance that it will reach the level of a "severe" one, similar to that of 2014-2016. One of the arguments considered was that in the three years since the most recent El Niño and since La Niña has been occurring, an even greater amount of heat has accumulated in the deep ocean.
In 2014-2016, the effects of El Niño were massive in the affected countries. Drought in South Africa resulted in the weakest agricultural output in twenty years. In Indonesia, the largest wild fires in local history were recorded. Almost a third of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia bleached and rot. In South America, the wetter and warmer weather contributed to an unprecedented proliferation of infectious diseases, including the Zika virus. Overall, the drought and floods back then exposed an estimated 60 million people to starvation. Globally, 2015 and 2016 were successively declared the warmest years on record.
The tropical Pacific is so vast that even a one-degree Celsius warming of its surface can affect the global climate. The more water evaporates, the more tropical storms proliferate. Atmospheric currents carry this extra energy to colder regions in the north and south. Their translation is also caused by the rotation of the Earth, so they spread towards the east and west as well. The end result is a global redistribution of heat and humidity. No two El Niños are alike, each bringing unpredictable weather changes. However, there are some patterns that are observed more often. In general, during El Niño, the Amazon basin, Australia, the Indian subcontinent, the Sahel, Southeast Asia and southern Africa enter a dry period. In contrast, central and eastern Asia, the southern United States, the Horn of Africa, and the southern cone of Latin America tend to experience a rainy period.
But what makes this El Niño even more unpredictable is the heat accumulated at the bottom of the oceans. Global warming is not only felt in the polluted and congested Bucharest, but also in the depths of the oceans. For several decades, researchers have been measuring the temperature of oceans up to two thousand meters deep. And this temperature has been on the rise since 1990. Won't El Niño's upheaval bring even more heat to the surface this time? And won't it cause global temperatures to rise even more? One researcher quoted by The Economist stated bluntly: "I am certain that 2024 will be an unprecedented year in terms of global temperatures”.
And here are the calculations. The planet is currently 1.26 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the era before the invention of the steam engine. Each additional degree Celsius in the "Niño 3.4" zone increases the global temperature by 0.07°C. If the current El Niño is a severe one, of two degrees or more, the global temperature could rise by 0.14°C - bringing the planet's temperature close to or within +1.4°C above the pre-industrial value. At which point the concerns of those in charge should begin in the regions most likely to be affected by these developments, such as Australia, Indonesia and part of the Amazon basin, where drought and wild fires will be even more frequent. Which is already happening.
Disease and famine: the effects of El Niño, amplified by the war in Ukraine and suspicions towards vaccination
India has recently limited its rice exports, anticipating a drop in production due to El Niño-induced drought. The ban affects half of India's rice exports, with the Asian subcontinent contributing (by volume) 40% of the world's rice trade. The decision of the Indian government has led to an increase in the price of rice on the stock market to a level not seen since 2011. A similar development could affect the wheat harvest. Australia produces almost 15% of the world's harvest, but in El Niño years, its contribution can be halved.
In this case, the situation is complicated by the war in Ukraine, another grain exporting country. The Russian aggression against the neighboring country has also disrupted other markets, such as that of cooking oil. In El Niño years, palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's largest exporters, can drop by as much as 20 percent. The decline is usually mitigated by sunflower oil produced in Russia and Ukraine, but this time, given the destruction and obstacles caused by the war, it will be much harder to achieve.
The rains brought by El Niño can be beneficial for some cultures. But if they are in excess, they can also be destructive.
In general, however, the humidity brought by El Niño favors another phenomenon: the recrudescence of epidemics. In high temperature conditions, viruses can reproduce faster, and the mosquitoes that carry them bite more often in heatwave conditions. In addition, more water holes favor their multiplication even more. The result is a higher rate of mosquito-borne illnesses. At this moment, hospitals in northern Peru are overcrowded due to the most severe dengue epidemic ever recorded in the country. Dengue is a tropical flu-like disease that can be transmitted through the bite of the Aedes mosquito.
The ongoing El Niño season has hit the Peruvian state twice. In addition to the flu pandemic, El Niño also brought a migration of anchovies off the nation's coasts, putting one of the world's largest fishing companies out of business. In the Horn of Africa, El Niño-induced flooding is associated with increased cholera cases. But the drought also produces a proliferation of diseases such as malaria – in Colombia and Venezuela, but also in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, where the El Niño of the 1997-1998 season contributed to several waves of malaria epidemics. In general, population dislocations, malnutrition and the lack of minimum sanitary conditions that occur as a result of extreme weather phenomena only exacerbate the spread of contagious diseases. And in the current period, the problem is aggravated by what the Covid pandemic left behind. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has estimated that the pandemic has led to a global drop in immunization rates to levels 30 years ago, causing preventable diseases such as measles to re-emerge in epidemic form in several countries
The effects of the El Niño phenomenon during this period are therefore expected to be large-scale and with a prolonged impact. On the one hand, compared to the 2014-2016 cycle, today's predictions and simulations are more accurate. Non-governmental organizations, as well as governments, set their policies and programs according to weather changes as well. For example, the World Health Organization is now working with the World Meteorological Organization to predict more precisely where it is most effective to allocate its resources and staff.
On the other hand, however, the brunt of the effects of El Niño will most often be felt in the regions recently hit by another natural or human calamity, such as droughts, floods, the Covid pandemic, the resulting increase in food prices in its aftermath and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. The balance between the pluses of warning and simulation technologies and the minuses of the disaster repeating in the same regions is a very fragile one – and certainly at the unpredictable disposal of El Niño.