5 Environmental Effects the Return of El Niño May Bring

Last month, May 2012, seven models used by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology came to a consensus: La Niña is gone, and El Niño is likely to make a comeback by the year’s end. Climatologists in other nations are generally reaching the same conclusion, although the severity of the upcoming pattern is unknown. If El Niño roars back to life, here are five humanitarian and environmental stories to watch.

5. The Sahel Food Crisis

Sahel DroughtPhoto: DMahendra
Drought may be an issue from Australasia to India to Africa’s Sahel region.

El Niño years typically bring hotter, drier conditions to the Sahel region of Africa. This could have tremendous implications for nations such as Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger that are already battling a severe food security crisis – which may even culminate in all-out famine. Even without El Niño’s influence, the Sahel food security situation has been shaping up to be a top humanitarian story of 2012. If El Niño fosters drier, hotter conditions across the region, the Sahel crisis may reach a tipping point.

4. Peru Wildlife Deaths

Bottlenose DolphinPhoto: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Wildlife such as Peru’s dolphins and pelicans may be affected by El Niño’s resurgence.

Off the coast of Peru, nearly 900 dolphins and some 5,000 pelicans have perished in recent weeks. The cause of the die-off is still under investigation, but newly warmed surface waters associated with an El Niño resurgence are suspected by some. The warm Pacific waters may have caused deadly algae blooms that asphyxiated the dolphins. Meanwhile, anchovies, the staple food of the pelicans, fled to deeper, cooler waters, depriving the birds of their primary food source. If El Niño develops in fits and starts, the sensitive offshore Peru current may go into flux too – perhaps further influencing the flora and fauna of the Peruvian coastal ecosystem.

3. Scorching Conditions from Australasia to India

Cracked soilPhoto: Jonathan Kos-Read
Cracked soil in China’s Gobi Desert indicates the effect of drought.

El Niño has already been blamed in India for delayed monsoonal patterns and there are fears of potential severe drought. In Australia, some forecasters are also predicting drought conditions when summer arrives, and massive wildfires are a trademark of severe such episodes. El Niño also brings drier conditions to Indonesia and surrounding nations, and the “hunger season” of East Timor will need to be closely monitored.

2. Food Production in Asia

Zhuang sugar cane harvestPhoto: Rolf Mueller
Sugar cane production is one area of agriculture that may be affected by El Niño in places such as China.

Southeast Asian nations are already worried about El Niño’s impact on agriculture and the regional economy. Palm oil, soy and sugar commodities may be affected, and China may need to ramp up its imports in response. A severe episode may even spread impacts into the global economy. In contrast, El Niño years usually mean increased summer rains on the Korean peninsula – something that may help to bust North Korea’s worst drought in recent times, and perhaps diffuse a budding, complex emergency.

1. Hurricanes and Typhoons

El Nino StormPhoto: Jon Sullivan
Storminess from cyclones and hurricanes may decrease in the Atlantic, but the risk of such weather may triple in Micronesia.

El Niño may help curtail a busy Atlantic Hurricane Season, but some Pacific Islands and East Asian nations may not be so lucky. Some of the oddest Asia-Pacific typhoon seasons in recent years have come during El Niño years, including 1997, when storms pounded Japan and southern Vietnam but left the usually vulnerable Philippines alone. In parts of Micronesia, El Niño is outright unwelcome: typhoon risk can triple.