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El Niño may be nearing end, but with sting in tail

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GENEVA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - El Niño, which has brought drought and storms to many parts of the world since last May, has more bad weather in store for tropical Pacific areas before starting to fade around mid-year, scientists said on Friday.

Their research, collected by the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), confirmed that the phenomenon, a large-scale oceanic warming, has wreaked less havoc than during its last incarnation in 1997-8, when it caused $34 billion of damage.

Described as a "moderate event", the current El Niño has coincided with climate anomalies including droughts in Australia and southern Africa and higher temperatures across Asia.

Now approaching its "mature stages", it has warmed sea surface temperatures across much of the central equatorial Pacific by 1.5 to two degrees Celsius above normal, a trend seen continuing for several months, according to a WMO statement.

The WMO said it was set to continue in the early months of 2003. "It is then likely that during March-June, there will be a slow decay of this warmth, corresponding to a gradual decay of El Niño," it said.

While historically it would be unusual for El Niño to continue throughout 2003, it was still too early for reliable predictions, it added.

"Although weaker than the 1997-98 event, which featured sea-surface temperatures three to four degrees Celsius above normal, this is a moderate El Niño event and its impacts are already apparent," WMO said.

Recent weather consistent with a continuing El Niño event included dry conditions over Indonesia and large tracts of Australia and rainy weather in the southeastern United States, southern Brazil, Uruguay and northern Argentina.

No two El Niño events, taken from the Spanish for "Little Boy", are identical, according to scientists.

But a distinguishing feature this time has been "unusual warmth in the far western tropical Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean" since November, a pattern which could become a factor in the climate of this region in coming months, they said.

"The warming in the tropical Pacific is not expected to reach levels that were experienced in 1997-98. Nonetheless, severe consequences in some regions are to be expected."

At least 15 people, including nine members of a family swept away by floodwaters, were killed in Fiji after Tropical Cyclone Ami tore through the South Pacific nation early this week, according to officials and survivors on Thursday.

A report this week by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia and two meteorologists said that to some extent the El Niño could be blamed for the heat and dryness, but the key villains were global warming and pollution.

Climate scientists in New Zealand have also said that the moderate El Niño, which has brought lower-than-normal rainfall to the country's key farm areas, was likely to last until May.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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