Understanding El Niño phenomenon and its impacts (Second of Two Parts)

by Admin-Phmp

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

(Second of Two Parts)

Science is not about making predictions or performing experiments. Science is about explaining.” – Bill Gaede


John Rogers Searle once said: “Prediction and explanation are exactly symmetrical. Explanations are, in effect, predictions about what has happened; predictions are explanations about what’s going to happen.”

Such a statement can also be used in predicting and explaining the El Niño phenomenon. What is unknown can never be known, but once it is known, something can be done about it.

Since El Niño is soon to come, are there ways to cushion the impacts of this bad boy of erratic weather?

“In the past El Niño episodes, the Philippine government responded with various agencies formulating their own action plans,” said Dr. Aida Jose, PAGASA’s chief of the Climatology Branch of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA).

“The fragmented approach did not curb the effects as evidenced by the extensive losses incurred,” she further stated. “It was recognized that the effects on agriculture, environment, domestic water supply, health and energy are inherently interrelated and called for a more coordinated approach.”

Quasi-periodic warming

The El Niño phenomenon is the quasi-periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that can affect the weather around the world.  

“El Niño is a warm current that temporarily displaces nutrient-rich upwelling cold water,” explains a publication released by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD). “El Niño warms and slightly raises the waters off the Peru coasts. This results in an abundant catch of anchovies which lasts for a short time.  After which, there is a decline in fish catch which devastates the local fishing industry.”

The ocean current is characterized as “a mysterious, massive pond of warm, nutrient-poor seawater which produces a periodic shift in ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions in the tropical Pacific.”


No one knows precisely when El Niño first struck. Historians are dating the phenomenon at least as far back as the early 1500s, when the Spanish conquistadores entered South America amid raging storms. But 400 years before that, there were records of terrible sweeping through pre-Columbian communities. 

The name El Niño, which means “The Child” in Spanish, was adopted by Peruvian fishers who noticed that the warm water appeared around Christmas, when Christ Child (more popularly known as Santo Niño among Filipinos) was born. It’s not surprising why, in the past, El Niño was believed to be a South American phenomenon with no wider inferences whatsoever.  

But recent scientific research, however, showed otherwise.

According to meteorologists, El Niño varies the surface temperature of the central/eastern part of the tropical Pacific by up to 4 degrees Centigrade, with associated changes in the wind and rainfall patterns.  

“This condition disrupts weather around the world, leading to nasty extremes,” says the PCAARRD publication. PCAARRD is a line agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

The cycle starts when eastern Pacific winds head west and plows ocean water in front of them. “When these winds ease, the waves return east,” the PCAARRD publication explains. “The warm current mixes with upwelling cold water, warms it slightly, and depresses the thermocline.” A thermocline is a layer of cool water that normally dilutes the warmer ocean surface.

“When the sea-surface temperature rises,” the PCAARRD primer continues, “the warmer water no longer cools the air above it effectively, producing a cross-ocean temperature differential. Then the winds stop or bring rain and more warm water eastward. The water strikes the coast and splits into two currents that move toward the poles and empty the basin of warm water.”

Beyond comprehension

The El Niño cycle may be simple but the energy reserve it carries is huge, almost beyond what the mind can comprehend. Listen to the explanation of one American meteorologist: “(El Niño) contains more energy than has been procured from all the fossils fuel burned in the United States since the beginning of the century – that’s all the gasoline in all the cars, the coal in all the power plants, the natural gas in all the furnaces.  It would take more than a million large power plants, at 1,000 megawatts each, running full tilt for a year, to heat the ocean that much.”

El Niño is unpredictable. In addition, it is mind-boggling. “This weather disturbance is considered an enemy that could cause damage to the environment, agriculture and marine life. As such, it has destructive consequences to human life,” the PCAARRD said.

Scientists rank El Niño as the number one force disturbing climate patterns. It has caused damage worth billions of dollars around the world in droughts, floods, and other livelihood revenues.

In the Philippines, the 1982-83 El Niño, for instance, had a lasting effect on the country’s weather condition. Take the case of the Metro Manila area, which did not have sufficient rainfall until 1985. Because of that, no considerable flooding occurred during the southwest monsoon season.

But when the normal southwest monsoon rains happened in 1986, it caused great havoc by flooding the Manila metropolis. The Laguna Lake was also loaded with water, leading to the flooding of Taguig for some time in 1986 until the early summer of 1987.

The absence of rain and consequent flooding in Metro Manila in 1982 and onwards led to being complacent in the belief that floods would not occur. This resulted in the canals and waterways to be clogged with dirt and debris from four years of low rain in the metropolis.

“Not much was known about the events that stunned the whole world – the sudden changes in climate, the warm ocean currents, extreme drought, heavy rains and flooding, hazardous forest fires, and snowstorms,” the PCAARRD primer points out.  

“However, the damage to numerous human lives and substantial properties and livelihood brought great impact which necessitated that humanity be clarified on issues concerning the events. Nowadays, science can explain what causes these atmospheric events and how these can possibly be abated,” it adds.

Some measures

“There is no way we could prevent the occurrence of El Niño, but we could mitigate its effects by instituting long-term and sustainable programs,” suggested Emmanuel Piñol, former agriculture secretary.

Since water is one of the greatest problems during the El Niño phenomenon, the Department of Health (DOH) issued some measures like conserving and using water wisely. It urged the government to protect water sources from contamination.

DOH also suggested drinking more fluids and wearing light clothing. People are urged to avoid strenuous physical activity.

The country’s weather bureau offered these measures: use a glass of water when brushing teeth; water plants in the morning or in the evening; take a bath in five minutes tops; use a bucket; use washing machines only when it’s fully loaded; use water basins when washing dishes by hand; and use a bucket of water and a rag to wash your car or bike.

Since there is less rainfall, PCAARRD advised farmers to plant drought-tolerant crops. Examples of such crops are sorghum, sweet peppers, asparagus, ube, tugue, alugbati, winged beans, cowpea, cucumber, kadios, camote, cassava, peanut, ginger, mung beans, and black peppers.  The following fruit trees are also drought-tolerant: cashew, mango, citrus, tamarind, avocado, jackfruit, guava, and grapes.

Watering, if necessary, must be done only during the cool part of the day – not on windy days. To keep the crops moist, cover them with mulch.  Mulch is a layer of organic materials – usually – that is spread on the surface of the soil. 

Where feasible, construct small water impounding reservoirs and other soil and water conservation measures (trench and contour canals, for instance) to catch and store water from rain or divert water from source.

Every Filipino is advised to get ready with the impacts of El Niño. Just like past El Niño events, it will come to pass. But when will the El Niño phenomenon end? Scientists claim that when there is no longer enough warm water to sustain the cycle, it dissipates – and then things return to normal once again.

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