The Southern African Development Community, comprised of 15 countries, announced this week an appeal for $2.7 billion in aid, due to the region’s worst drought in 30 years. 23 million people are in urgent need of assistance. 5 of the 15 countries have declared state of emergencies. Southern Africa had already been subject to two failed rainy seasons.
This year’s drought is part of a “super” El Nino, dramatically affecting world weather patterns and world populations every 20 years or so. In the Western Hemisphere we tend to think of El Nino as a dramatic increase in rainfall, occurring every 2-7 years. In the Eastern Hemisphere, the effects are just the opposite, resulting in severe droughts. Worldwide, approximately 60 million people face food insecurity due to crop damages from drought conditions or extreme flooding.
An unresolved question is to what degree is an El Nino or super El Nino exaggerated by global warming, brought on by global industrialization especially in the last 20 years.
Global warming is most likely human induced. Increased carbon dioxide emissions, up 40% since 18th century, accounts for one of several green house gases whose job is to trap heat in nature. According to NASA the evidence for rapid climate change includes: (1) sea level rise (6.7 inches in the last 100 years, a rate that doubled in just the last 10 years); (2) global temperature rise, especially in the last 20 years (10 of the earth’s warmest years have occurred in the last 12 years); (3) warming oceans, absorbing much of the increase in global temperatures; (4) shrinking ice sheets; and (5) declining Artic sea ice. There are a host of other indictors…but I think you get the idea.
Scientists know that El Nino contributes to increases in global temperatures. The question before them is whether, “rising global and ocean temperatures, in turn, intensify El Nino? State of the Planet has done substantive reporting in the area.
One study suggests that super El Nino events, due to climate change, could double in frequency from every 20 years to every 10 years. Other studies and climate models differ. Gavin Schmidt is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. According to Schmidt, “There is a very large variation in ENSO statistics (frequency/magnitude) over time, and so detecting a shift due to climate change is very challenging. Models as a whole are all over the shop, and so it doesn’t fill one with great confidence.”
There are many warning signs. A recent study concluded that half of the ocean warming that has occurred since the age of industrialization, has taken place in just the last 20 years. For many it’s not a matter of “if” global warming is magnifying El Nini events, but “how.” Lisa Goddard is Director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. According to Goddard, “We have to think climate change will influence El Niño in some way and will impact its impacts,” said Goddard. “But how El Niño events themselves change because of global warming? It’s hard to say, and harder to observe because there is so much variation in El Niño by itself from decade to decade. It’s a tough question to answer.”
Michael Jarraud, Former Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, states…“This naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways we have never before experienced.” Jarraud believes we are in “uncharted territory.”