Views to Ponder: Coming soon: The El Niño phenomenon

by Admin-Phmp

Prepare for the worst and take mitigating measures. That was what President Ferdinand R. Marcos told concerned government agencies of the forthcoming El Niño phenomenon.

Right now, the climate pattern is described as “neutral” since El Niño is expected to hit the country starting July, according to the country’s weather bureau.

In Davao City, chief meteorological officer Lolita Vinalay of PAGASA Davao station told attending media during the Kapehan sa Dabaw at SM City that based on the forecast models issued by the country’s weather bureau, “there is a possibility for the development of El Niño this coming July, August and September.”

Already some areas in Davao region are already experiencing dry spell. People are also complaining because of shortage, if not lack, of water. I am writing this column without having a bath yet since there is no water from our faucet!

Dry spell is just one of the manifestations of the El Niño event, which Spanish fishermen originally named as “Corriente del Niño.”  The word “corriente” describes the appearance of warm ocean current flowing from time to time in the eastern equatorial Pacific region along the South American coasts. 

The word “Niño” was traditionally associated with the birth of baby Jesus, as it was observed around Christmas. It was used to be considered as a local event along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador. Through the years, “corriente” dropped out, leaving only El Niño.

Initially, El Niño was a weak, warm current that appeared annually, which lasted for only a few weeks to a month. However, every 3-7 years, an El Niño event lasted for many months.  The phenomenon used to affect only a narrow water strip off Peru, but now it appears as a large-scale oceanic warming that affects most of the tropical Pacific.

“El Niño is a warm current that temporary displaces nutrient-rich upwelling cold water,” explains El Niño Southern Oscillation: Mitigating Measures, published jointly by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) and the Department of Agriculture (DA). 

“El Niño warms and slightly raises the waters off the Peru coasts,” continues the book. “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. 

“The cycle begins when eastern Pacific winds head west and plows ocean water in front of them,” the PCARRD-DA book informs. “When these winds ease, the waves return east.  The warm current mixes with the upwelling cold water, warms it slightly, and depresses the thermocline.” 

For the uninformed, thermocline is a layer of cool water that normally dilutes the warmer ocean surface.

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

How do we know if El Niño is already here? In the past, the El Niño Task Force has observed the following apparent signals: delayed onset of the rainy season, early onset of the dry season, weak monsoon activity and less tropical cyclone occurrences.

But why should we be worried about the erratic weather? It is because of the energy reserves that it carries. Experts say “it contains more energy than has been procured from all the fossil fuels 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.”

That’s unthinkable. They say that 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. Now, that’s indeed scary.

What is more frightening is that food insecurity will be upon us again. The Policy Forum of the Center for Policy and Development Studies of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos (UPLB) recorded five El Niños between 1980 and 1995. 

During the 1982-83 drought, palay yield plummeted by 4%.  In the 1986-87 events, yield went down by over 1% and during 1989-90 by less than 1%.  In other episodes, there were no yield declines but yield increments slowed down.

“The figures may not firmly establish the negative relationship between El Niño and crop productivity,” the UPLB policy forum writes in its 1997 paper. But it suggested that “contrary to the practice in legal proceedings, it is senseless to wait for sufficient evidence to incriminate the accused beyond reasonable doubt. Why wait for the probable damage before taking any action?”

Good question!

Generally, El Niño may bring some health problems, according to the Department of Health. Among the anticipated health effects are diseases related to water scarcity, red tide blooms, and disorders associated with high temperatures.

“The brighter side of the El Niño situation is that if we are prepared for it, we will survive more than ever before,” commented an official of the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau, a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “We will even be better for it. For what could better test a nation’s coping ability and creativity than a natural disaster that announces itself ahead of time?”

Every Filipino is advised to get ready with the impacts of the El Niño phenomenon. Just like past El Niño events, it will come to pass.

The question remains: When will this 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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