It Might Look Like El Niño, But It's Not
By Abraham Lama
The warming of the sea, which has caused intense rainfall along the Peruvian Pacific coast, fed fears that the climate effect known as El Niño had returned, but meteorologists are ruling out that possibility.
LIMA, (Tierramérica).- - Peruvians feared earlier this months that a new manifestation of the phenomenon known as El Niño was beginning, because the temperature of the water off the Pacific coast rose by as much as three degrees. They are still not completely over their fright.
This change in water surface temperature lead to heavy rains that flooded rivers, causing at least four deaths, destroying hundreds of cultivated fields, damaging thousands of homes belonging to rural and urban poor, and causing mudslides that blocked roads.
The most recent appearance of El Niño, in 1998, caused worldwide damages estimated in the dozens of billions of dollars. In Peru alone, the total reached three billion dollars, and included the destruction of 62 bridges, hundreds of kilometers of roads, 113,000 homes, 1,550 schools, 380 medical centers and seven airports.
El Niño is a current of warm water that originates in the Pacific Ocean off Australia, and occurs every three to seven years. It heads to the South American coast, where it flows north to south. It has a dramatic impact on the global climate, causing the catastrophic extremes of flooding and drought.
It was not until the mid-20th century that the world scientific community established that El Niño was the cause of climate phenomena in areas as far-flung as India, where it affects the monsoon winds, in China, Indonesia and Latin America (massive flooding), and South Africa and Australia (droughts).
Monitoring systems for sea temperatures and wind directions feed databases of scientific organizations that began exchanging information about the phenomenon since 1990, at the behest of the United Nations.
"It is an effort to uncover the cycles that govern the frequency and intensity of this phenomenon, which seems to drive the global climate mad, but obeys an internal logic that we should recognize and anticipate," Ena Jaimes, of Peru's National Meteorology and Hydrology Service, told Tierramérica.
The U.S.-based Climate Prediction Center in January recorded a trend of sea surface warming off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, and considered it likely that new manifestations of El Niño would occur in the next three months.
The Scientific Committee for the Regional Study of El Niño Phenomenon in South America, made up of experts from Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, confirmed the sea warming at their meeting in Lima in January, but ruled out that this marks a new El Niño episode.
But on Feb 5, Lima saw its most intense rainfall in 32 years. In the rest of the country there were floods and mudslides, causing four deaths and affecting 8,500 people.
Jaimes, as well as admiral Hugo Arévalo, head of the committee in charge of tracking El Niño in Peru, and Ronald Woodman, of the Geophysical Institute, reported to President Alejandro Toledo that, "though it might look like it, this is not the beginning of another El Niño."
"There is a warming of the sea that is increasing rainfall in Peru, but it is not El Niño," said Woodman.
Arévalo pointed out that "the warming of the ocean was not caused by a warm current flowing from the other side of the Pacific, as occurs with El Niño, but rather from humidity originating in the Atlantic."
"This difference in origin is important, particularly for the predictable duration of the rains. If it were El Niño we would have to prepare ourselves for excessive rainfall over the next 12 months," he said.
* Abraham Lama is an IPS correspondent.