El Niño: Feeling the heat

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John Veron stands on a mudflat littered with dead coral and gazes mournfully at a nearby reef, which has been bleached a ghostly white by Australia’s hottest summer in history.

“This is nothing like what it was,” says Mr Veron, who has studied the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland since 1972. “Back then you could swim along this area here and go diving in among quite luxuriant coral. I’m afraid now it’s a mixture of gravel and sand.”

Mr Veron, a scientist who has named about a fifth of the world’s coral species, is visiting Orpheus Island to study the worst bleaching event in the history of the reef. Up to 95 per cent of coral reefs in the northern portion of the 2,300km-long Great Barrier Reef are suffering severe bleaching as a result of rising sea temperatures, with scientists reporting that half of that coral is already dead.

“It is the El Niño years that are worst because that’s when you get slightly higher sea temperatures,” says Mr Veron, referring to the warming of the central and eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean which occurs every three to seven years, leading to shifts in global weather patterns.

Named the Christ Child by the Peruvian fishermen who noticed it in the 17th century, El Niño has occurred for thousands of years. But recent research — disputed by some scientists — suggests global warming will make El Niño events, and its reverse phenomenon, La Niña, more severe.

The current El Niño, which began in early 2015 and should peter out in the next few months, is one of the most intense in history. Its effect is stretching around the globe and prompting academics, aid agencies and insurers to warn of the need for countries and corporations to make greater efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and invest in measures to make them more resilient to severe weather events.

“The impact of a strong El Niño is massive, global in reach and likely to occur more frequently into a warmer future,” says Agus Santoso, a senior research associate at the Climate Change Research Centre at University of New South Wales.

“It affects marine environments, agricultural crop yields, society and perhaps even politics.”

El Niño helped to make 2015 the hottest year on record, according to Nasa. The US space agency said it marked the first time global average temperatures were 1C or more above the 1880-99 average, the point when modern record-keeping began. Even as the weather pattern weakens, its effect will continue to hit communities and prices for commodities from palm oil to natural gas.

The UN warns that up to 60m people in developing countries are at risk from the effects of drought, fire and flooding linked to El Niño, which is also likely to lead to food insecurity and outbreaks of disease. It is urging governments and donors to act to strengthen health systems, adaptation measures and responsiveness to severe weather.

Assessing the economic impact of El Niño is difficult. An International Monetary Fund report in 2015 showed that Australia, Chile, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa all experience a shortlived dip in growth because of severe weather events. In Europe and the US, meanwhile, output improves because warmer and wetter weather encourages crop growth.

Munich Re says losses from natural catastrophes last year fell to $100bn, their lowest level since 2009, mainly due to fewer hurricanes affecting North America. This glosses over the impact in poorer regions, which face the most severe events during El Niño.

“El Niño, on average and also visible in the 2015 pattern, hits the poorer areas of the world hardest while richer regions are relatively unscathed,” says Peter Hoeppe, head of geo risks research at the reinsurer.

Companies are moving to insulate themselves from the risks. GrainCorp, an Australian agribusiness, is investing A$30m to expand in Canada — in part to escape the threat posed by drought in eastern Australia, a common feature in El Niño years.

“Weather has a number of impacts: it can be about quality and it can be about quantity,” says Mark Palmquist, GrainCorp chief executive. “It certainly has an impact on price. So to be a competitive and consistent supplier with quality you just have to diversify your supply chains.”

Fragile ecological environments like the Great Barrier Reef are, however, unlikely to be able to adapt to increasingly severe weather events.

Many scientists believe the deal reached at the Paris climate conference in December, which aims to keep global temperature rises this century well below 2C, is inadequate. That concern appeared to be reinforced by Nasa data released last week showing that January, February and March each recorded their highest ever temperatures.

A change in Australian policy seems unlikely. Last month it approved one of the world’s biggest coal mines even as scientists warned that bleaching linked to climate events threatened to destroy the Great Barrier Reef.

“The Paris plans to curb CO2 emissions are not remotely adequate to stem catastrophic climate change,” says Mr Veron. “It’s like Russian roulette. There is nothing at all to stop one El Niño wiping out the Great Barrier Reef in a few months.”

Drought: South African agriculture faces $1bn bill

Rotting carcases of cattle lie strewn across parched, cracked soil. Fields are littered with stunted, worthless maize plants. Dams that provide resources for hydroelectricity, irrigation and drinking water sit at their lowest levels for years, writes Andrew England in Johannesburg.

Such scenes have been playing out across southern Africa as the El Niño weather cycle buffeted fragile economies and heaped pain on a region of nearly 300m people. In South Africa, the regional power, five out of nine provinces were declared drought disaster areas last year, while the government estimates that the economic cost on agriculture has already hit $1bn.

A key breadbasket for less developed neighbours — providing about 70 per cent of their maize imports, the main ingredient for staple foods — the effects are being felt across South Africa’s borders. Last year, its maize crop was down by a third to 9.9m tonnes. In 2016 it is expected to fall to 7.2m tonnes. Annual domestic consumption stands at 10.5m tonnes.

Just as South Africa’s commercial farmers are being battered, so too are thousands of small-scale producers across the region. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that 31.6m people in southern Africa face food shortages. It warned last month that acute malnutrition is increasing in Zimbabwe, southern Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique as the region has endured it lowest rainfall in years coupled with its hottest temperatures in a decade.

“Southern Africa’s unprecedented El Niño-related and weather-related stress has triggered a second year of food insecurity for the vulnerable with serious consequences that will persist until at least the next harvest in March 2017,” the WFP said. “The current regional cereal deficit of 7.9m tonnes will increase steeply and unprecedented food price volatility [and] will continue through to the next harvest.”

There has been some rain in recent weeks but much will depend on conditions in the last three months of the year when farmers sow a new crop. After two poor harvests maize producers are struggling.

“Farmers have lost money from the 2015 crop and also coming into this year, so generally many of them are in hard financial conditions,” says Wandile Sihlobo, an economist at Grain SA, a farmers’ association. “Even if South Africa gets good rainfall around October, when we have to plant the next crop, what is going to be important is whether the farmers will have the resources to actually plant because most of them are in debt.”

Elsewhere, Zimbabwe is expected to produce below 500,000 tonnes this year, when normally production would be around 1.5m tonnes, Mr Sihlobo says.

Grain SA estimates that South Africa will need to import nearly 4m tonnes of maize, mainly from Latin America. There is not yet a maize shortage, but prices are already soaring, adding to inflationary pressures at a time when currencies around the region are plummeting.

In Zambia, there is an additional effect. The copper producer relies on hydroelectricity for 95 per cent of its electricity but with dam levels dropping it is rationing power to eight to 12 hours a day. The fall in metal prices is also exacerbating the situation for exporters such as South Africa and Zambia.

Flooding: Heavy rains bring relief to California

California is one of the few places that derives some benefit from El Niño. This winter the extra rain it has delivered has helped alleviate a four-year drought in the US state, writes Leslie Hook in San Francisco.

Precipitation levels stood at 109 per cent of the average between October and March, helping to refill reservoirs that had become depleted during the drought. For farmers — whose fields have been parched — it means that more water will be released from state reservoirs for irrigation than in 2015, a boost for the state’s $50bn agriculture industry.

The effect helps explain why the US economy overall may benefit from El Niño: a study last year by the IMF found that the US economy might grow by 0.55 per cent following an El Niño shock. Wetter weather for the west coast and a milder winter in the north-east both contribute.

At times the El Niño effect has been too much. In January, northern California reported huge sea swells and floods from a storm which was especially strong because of El Niño. Throughout winter, seafront communities have also suffered from flooding because of unusually high “king tides”, which were strengthened by El Niño.

In the coastal city of Pacifica — usually popular for its surfing — residents piled up sandbags and moved cars as waves crashed across driveways. In the Sierras, meanwhile, extra snow has helped the skiing industry and built up the snowpack, the source for roughly a third of California’s water.

Despite all this, the drought that began in California in 2011 is still not officially over, and many reservoirs remain at below-average levels.

“It had been so dry in the past four years, [that] this was certainly a turnround,” says Dan Cayan, research meteorologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He says, however, that it would have been “almost impossible” to end the drought, even after so much rain, because of the deficit from previous years.

One major disappointment has been that southern California has remained dry this winter, defying expectations. Dry conditions could be exacerbated with a La Niña — which in the past has brought floods to South East Asia and Australia and droughts to the US midwest — later this year. Even after an El Niño winter, California is still hoping for more rain.

Fire: Indonesia tries to limit damage to its peatlands

Every year toxic smog gathers over Southeast Asia during the dry spell around July as forest fires — started by Indonesian smallholders using slash-and-burn techniques to clear land — take hold. The annual blight has been aggravated by what locals call a “Godzilla” El Niño that delayed monsoon rains across the archipelago, writes Avantika Chilkoti in Jakarta.

Officials estimate 2.6m hectares of land was charred last year, about four and a half times the area of Bali.

Some 500,000 people suffered respiratory problems, 2.4m students were affected as schools were temporarily closed and relations with Singapore grew tense as the pollution drifted across borders.

The World Resources Institute estimates that the fires emitted more than 1.62bn metric tons of carbon dioxide by the end of October, exceeding total emissions from the entire US economy on 26 days in a 44-day period analysed by the WRI. The Asian Development Bank and World Bank estimate that the fires cost Indonesia more than $16bn.

“The triggers on the ground are human-made,” says Andika Putraditama, an outreach officer at the WRI. “If we don’t change the way we manage our land use, extreme El Niño events like we saw last year are going to be a lot more damaging for Indonesia.”

The fires have turned into an environmental disaster in recent decades after powerful palm oil and paper businesses began to drain carbon-rich peatland, which left it dry and highly flammable. Some say the extreme El Niño weather pattern has actually been a blessing in disguise, spurring the government to act. Amid heightened international pressure, President Joko Widodo has issued a moratorium on cultivating peatland. He has ordered a review of licences to drain peat and followed up with calls to rewet vast swaths of land.

“We don’t want to just say who is at fault, we want to solve the problem,” says Raffles Panjaitan, director of forest fire prevention at the environment and forestry ministry.

With a decentralised government spread over 17,000 islands, enforcement is a major hurdle and Jakarta’s actions are being called into question as a second dry spell begins. Another 1,432 hotspots have been detected since the beginning of the year.

The weakness of Jakarta’s response is captured in the newly created Peatland Restoration Agency. Nazir Foead, head of the organisation, plans to restore some 830,000 hectares this year but told reporters last month that bureaucratic delays mean his team has yet to receive any state funding.

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