Weather Changes and El Niño
[Excerpted from The Earth Times, September 28 1996]

Weather Changes Vex Scientists

by Vir Singh
(c) Earth Times News Service

Drought in southern Africa, major forest fires in Indonesia and Australia, floods in Southeast Asia these were only some of the extreme weather changes linked to the last major occurrence, in 1982-83, of the El Niño phenomenon. El Niño is a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that typically appears in late December and can last several months. This alters both the source and the amount of atmospheric heating, affecting prevailing winds that determine the weather. Worldwide damage to crops and fisheries, disaster relief and other costs linked to the extreme climate changes in 1982-83 alone were estimated at more than $8 billion.

El Niño has occurred more than once since then. Meanwhile, scientists have greatly improved their ability to detect El Niño in order to forecast the extreme weather changes that follow. Now, they are joining forces to create an international system to share information and to quickly convert new research findings into practical information for use at all levels. Last fall, the National Oceanic and Air Administration (NOAA) invited several countries to Washington to discuss a proposed international institute focusing on El Niño and related changes in the Earth's climate. NOAA has studied the phenomenon for several years, but never before on the scale currently envisaged.

What sets this proposal apart is its emphasis on applying the information from El Niño forecasts to on-the-ground efforts to mitigate natural disasters and to promote sustainable development, Brian Atwood, head of the US Agency for International Development, told the participants at the November 1995 meeting. Southern Africa s droughts of 1991-92 and 1994-95 were linked to the El Niño effect. The region lost an estimated three million tons of grain production, enough to feed 25 million people.

Timely forecasting of future El Niño occurrences will require significant contributions and commitment from countries, Atwood said, but not foreseeing extreme weather changes will cost still more. In 1992, he said, US disaster relief for drought victims totaled $800 million roughly equivalent to US development assistance that year for all of sub-Saharan Africa.

A Moroccan delegate noted that droughts in the early 1990s have critically damaged his country s water reserves. He said the city of Tangier is being supplied with drinking water by tankers. Detecting El Niño at an early stage will allow the government to advise farmers in northwest Morocco about when to plant crops, the delegate added.

We must not underestimate the need for shared scientific information to flow freely between its research phase and its application, all the while working to improve the science itself, said Dr. D. James Baker, a senior US official and one of the key backers of the proposed research institute. An international panel of experts and government officials will meet regularly to work out details of the proposal. Meanwhile, updates of El Niño research and the above meetings are available on the World Wide Web at