(en) El Nino, 1997 --early warning

Lyn and Shawn (linjin@tao.ca)
Fri, 27 Jun 1997 00:42:09 pst

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------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Thu, 26 Jun 1997 22:52:18 -0700 (PDT) From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org> Subject: El Nino, 1997 --early warning


El Nino Events Will Increasingly Challenge Human Survival- copyright 1997, by Geri Guidetti

No one expected that 1982-83 would be such a meteorologically significant year. Weather, as a rule, is always variable, and occasional, big, unexpected swings have always impacted our ability to raise food in affected regions. When it happens, the affected countries either find the resources to import food from unaffected countries or regions, or starve. Graphic results of the latter usually make it to the nightly, televised news at just about dinnertime.

Yet, when the El Nino of 1982-83 occurred it is still ranked as the worst of the century and, perhaps, the worst ever the world was hard-pressed to simply reallocate global food resources. In many regions, the periodic Pacific Ocean warm-water event that tends to peak in winter around Christmas time, literally challenged human survival. Consider some of its impact, below:

*Australia, Africa and Indonesia were ravaged by droughts, dust storms and brush fires. *Peru received the heaviest rainfall in recorded history, 11 FEET in areas that normally received 6 inches. Some rivers carried water volume 1000 times the normal flow!

*$13 billion dollars of damage to property and livelihoods *An estimated 2000 deaths directly related to weather catastrophes *The rise in sea surface temperature caused a drastic decline in the microscopic sea life that feeds higher marine species. Commercial fisheries Twelve years later, in 1994, an eight inch high wave of warm water from this El Nino was still traveling across the ocean at five miles an hour. *On the east coast of the United States, it caused an unusually warm, wet spring perfect for the mosquitoes that harbor encephalitis. There was an epidemic of the disease that year.

*In the high elevations of Montana, the effect was dry heat that drove mice down to lower elevations in search of food and water. The rattlesnakes followed the mice, and humans were bitten by the snakes. *In New Mexico, El Nino brought a cool, wet spring preferred by fleas.That led to an outbreak of bubonic plague in the state. *The Pacific Ocean currents became so warm that great white shark attacks occurred off the normally cold coastal waters of Oregon. *An outbreak of spinal injuries among surfers in California was caused by unexpected changes in the sea floor topography.

The most striking and, perhaps, most mind-boggling effect of this historical El Nino was recorded by David Salstein and Richard Rosten of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They recorded a shift in the angular momentum of the earth as a result in the changes in the jet stream and trade winds. The latter had not only collapsed, but actually reversed. At the peak of the event in January of that year, day length actually increased by 0.2 milliseconds!

**US crop losses from the 1982-83 El Nino were estimated at $10-12 billion, and that was in 1983 dollars. Today, more land is under cultivation, population and global demand is much higher, and there is no appreciable backlog on which to draw.

At this moment, we have an El Nino event intensifying in the Pacific Ocean. The peak of this one is expected sometime this winter, but effects may be felt from October through March or later. These warm water events have historically occurred every 2-7 years. Indirect evidence of El Ninos over hundreds of years exists in the form of tree ring analyses, ice core and coral reef samples and written accounts by early American settlers. More recent El Ninos occurred in 1986, 1991-92, 1993 and 1994. About this apparent increase in frequency, NOAA says, "It is unusual for El Ninos to occur in such rapid succession, as has been the case during 1990-94." Unusual everything seems to be the new norm these days, more evidence that we live in a time of great climatic change.

On June 10th, the Climate Prediction Center reported that computer model predictions indicate that the current episode will continue to intensify for the remainder of this year and, given its magnitude, atmospheric anomalies should develop during the next few months. It is likely that climatic anomalies such as severe droughts, flooding and hurricanes will be teleconnected to the El Nino, that is, they will be connected by atmospheric interactions across widely separated regions.

What does this all have to do with our food supply? Plenty, of course. Keep in mind that the global food marketplace is now essentially practicing just-in-time production and distribution. Most governments, including the U.S., are no longer paying the price to purchase and store large stockpiles of grain or other foods. Spring arrives and there is precious little food left in the international grain bins to keep the world's mouths full, to stave off hunger, for more than 28-48 days by most estimates. Hurry up plant, harvest and store this year's grain just in time for THIS year's needs. Hope for the best weather, walk the tightrope, with no real safety net.

Just in time food production and delivery, as well as our nearly complete dependence on the systems that provide them, renders us uncomfortably vulnerable during an El Nino of the magnitude of the one in 1982-83 or worse. There were those nice, big grain stockpiles available in those days. Drought in Australia? No problem. We could supply the whole country from our excess wheat if we had to. No more.

How can our growing foreknowledge of an impending El Nino help us on the food front? Is there any way we can make ourselves less vulnerable? We can start by looking at the potential impact the event will have on our own continent 's food raising capabilities. In North America, the climatic changes tend to be the most dramatic in the winter. Winters tend to be milder than normal in the northeast and central US and wet over the south, from Florida to Texas. Northwestern Canada and the US, as well as Alaska, have been abnormally warm during these events. A high pressure ridge sets itself up over northwestern regions of North America and a low pressure trough over the southeastern US. Folks under the high pressure can 't buy a drop of rain, while those in the trough can 't turn it off. Drought and heat waves or severe storms and floods it all depends on which side of the line you fall.

During such a Pacific warming event, drought can occur virtually anywhere in the world. It can occur during different seasons at different magnitudes in different regions. It is feasible that it could occur during the growing seasons of many key agricultural regions of the world during the same year, leaving the world with no big harvests for the affected year. From past events we know that all of Australia can nearly count on a drought and fires. Australia is currently a big wheat producer and exporter. In 16 of 17 El Ninos of the past, Northeastern South America, from Brazil to Venezuela, were hit with droughts. Rain forests even burned during these dry periods.

Drought or floods, either can lead to famine, and forecasts of El Nino conditions are now part of Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) in many regions of the world. A NOAA report suggests,

"Famine, like drought, is a slow-onset disaster, so forewarning may enable countries to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, its worst impacts."

What can we do to provide greater food security for our families in this just-in-time food production environment? We can store our own food, enough for at least a year, during times of plenty. We can learn to grow our own food, now, while there is still time to learn how. We can grow dwarf fruit trees instead of those dwarf maples, blueberries instead of privets, nut trees instead of maples. We can store our own open-pollinated seed for long-term food security "just in case". We can store seeds that are drought tolerant for those years when we will need them and, conversely, we can store those that are resistant to fungal diseases and tolerate "wet feet" for those years when we are inundated with rain. In a nutshell, we need to take nothing for granted when it comes to food. One day, we may have to depend just on ourselves for our food supplies. What a scary thought......

Geri Guidetti, The Ark Institute

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