El Niño provides an opportunity to assess climate change preparedness

February 9, 2016

Guest Post By Lee Webb

This year’s extraordinarily strong El Niño is a good opportunity for organizations to take stock of their climate preparedness. Appreciating just what El Niños are and how they affect local and global weather, will help show how they are connected to climate change preparedness.

El Niños are periodic reversals of the typical wind and water conditions in the Pacific Ocean.[1] Normally, equatorial trade winds push warm surface water west toward Australia and Indonesia, allowing cooler water to rise up near South America. During an El Niño, those winds die down, letting warm equatorial water move east toward the Americas. This generally results in Asia-Pacific countries becoming drier and the Americas become warmer and wetter, although an El Niño’s interactions with other weather systems can result in unpredictable weather in any given place.[2] Climate change, by contrast, is a relatively permanent change to climate, which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change describes as being the direct or indirect result of human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere.[3]

El Niños (and their cooler counterparts, La Niñas) are not due to climate change.[4] They have occurred about twice per decade for centuries, being first recognized by South American fishermen since at least the 1700s. El Niños are a normal part of our climactic patterns. While some researchers speculate that climate change will intensify the effects of El Niños, several studies have found no link between climate change and the El Niño system.[5]

What are the effects of an El Niño?

While they occur in the Pacific, El Niños have a global reach. In addition to causing warm winters in much of North America, they have been linked to dry conditions in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, south-eastern Africa and northern Brazil, and wetter conditions in the Southern United States, western and southern South America and eastern Africa.[6]

The last major El Niño was in 1998. That event caused record high temperatures throughout the Northern hemisphere and spiked the global temperature average that year higher than it had ever been recorded.[7] It also contributed to the Ontario/Quebec ice storm of that year,[8] which cost Canadians up to 7 billion dollars (adjusted for inflation), making it the costliest weather event in Canada’s history.[9] In America, “the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assessed direct economic losses from the very strong 1997/1998 El Niño event at US$ 34 billion, with a loss of 24 000 lives.”[10]

This year’s El Niño is similarly severe.[11] Already, this El Niño is being connected to wildfires in Brazil, Indonesia and Australia.[12] In California, a four-year long drought is being interrupted thanks to El Niño, but the high volume of rain is too much for the parched earth to absorb, leading to flooding and mudslides.[13] Worldwide, chaotic weather has caused local agricultural production to fall, resulting in increased prices for staple grains and export crops.[14]

The link between El Niños and Climate Change

Thinking about how this year’s El Niño directly or indirectly effected your organization is good practice for thinking about how to prepare for the challenges that climate change may bring if El Niño-like conditions happen more frequently.

Like an El Niño, climate change brings uncertainty; we know that generally the world will warm, but what areas will warm, dry out, or get wetter – and when – are among the most difficult questions for scientists to answer. Climate change may bring better conditions to some areas, but these benefits may be offset by stress put on neighbouring areas. Fortunately, El Niños are like a dress rehearsal for climate change. While El Niños change climate quickly and significantly, they leave quickly too. This gives us room to address weaknesses in any effected systems, like our infrastructure, supply chains or insurance coverage.

What might life be like 50 years from now when Toronto has the climate of Virginia?[15] In some scenarios, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources predicts that Southern Ontario will be about 5 degrees warmer and 10% drier than it is currently, with a host of specific challenges similar to those we face in El Niño years – like greater summer electricity demand, and more freezing rain.[16] As climate change becomes more and more noticeable, we will be glad to have paid attention to the warning bells sounded by El Niños.

For more information on what your organization can do to prepare itself for climate change, and El Niños, Mantle’s previous post on adaptation in the electricity industry has suggestions that can benefit most companies.

Lee Webb is a lawyer and consultant focused on developing policy for organizations seeking sustainability. Lee holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies (BPhil) from the University of New Brunswick, Business Ethics (MA) from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and a law degree (JD) from the University of Toronto. He can be reached through LinkedIn or email.

[1] World Meteorological Organization, “El Niño/Southern Oscillation” (2014), WMO-No. 1145, online: https://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/wcp/wcasp/documents/JN142122_WMO1145_EN_web.pdf (WMO) at p. 3

[2] Ibid. at p. 6

[3] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 12 June 1992, 1771 U.N.T.S. 107, (1992) 31 I.L.M. 849 (entered into force 21 March 1994) at Art 1.2 online: https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf

[4] Environment and Climate Change Canada, “El Niño” (2 December 2015), online: Environment and Climate Change Canada https://www.ec.gc.ca/meteo-weather/default.asp?lang=En&n=1C524B98-1

[5] Ibid.

[6] WMO supra note 1 at p. 6

[7] Ibid. at p. 5.

[8] Tom Ross, et al., “The El Nino Winter of ’97 – ’98”, National Climactic Data Center, TR 98-02 (April 1998), online: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration https://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/techrpts/tr9802/tr9802.pdf p. 8.

[9] Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, “ Telling the Weather Story” (June 2012), online: Insurance Bureau of Canada https://assets.ibc.ca/Documents/Studies/McBean_Report.pdf at p. 38

[10] WMO supra note 1 at p. 7

[11] Alan Buis, “A Still-Growing El Niño Set to Bear Down on U.S.”, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (29 December 2015), online: NASA https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4808

[12] Lynn Jenner, “El Nino’s Effects Bring More Wildfires to Brazil” (19 August 2015), online: NASA https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/el-ninos-effects-bring-more-wildfires-to-brazil;

Lynn Jenner, “El Niño Brought Drought and Fire to Indonesia” (19 August, 2015), online: NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/el-nino-brought-drought-and-fire-to-indonesia;

Gretchen Miller, “Fire in an El Niño summer”, Radio National (14 December 2015), online: Australian Broadcasting Corporation https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rnafternoons/fire-in-an-el-nino-summer/7026480

[13] CBS News, “More rescues, evacuations as El Niño storms batter California” (7 January 2016), online: CBS https://www.cbsnews.com/news/el-nino-southern-california-record-breaking-storms-floods-mudslides-damaged-homes/

[14] Lucy Craymer, “Commodities Prices Are Heating Up on El Niño” (12 October 2015), online: The Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/commodities-prices-are-heating-up-on-el-nino-1444679542

[15] S.J. Colombo, et. al., “Climate Change Projections for Ontario: Practical Information for Policymakers and Planners” (2007), CCRR-05 online: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources https://www.climateontario.ca/MNR_Publications/276923.pdf at p. 5

[16] Ibid. at p. 35