Global weather could spawn humanitarian crisis

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2016 likely to set records for severe weather.

By Mindy Farabee –

St Louis flood relief
The Salvation Army’s Midland Division at a Multi Agency Resource Center (MARC) assisting victims of the recent deadly flooding along the Mississippi with emotional, spiritual and financial assistance.

From battling torrential floods throughout the U.K. to distributing food to drought-stricken Papua New Guinea, Salvation Army response teams on the frontlines of natural disasters have experienced a year for the record books. But several humanitarian groups are cautioning that even more potentially devastating fallout from severe weather could well be on the way.

According to the World Health Organization, over 60 million people, mostly in developing countries, are at high risk of not just the immediate dangers of floods, mudslides and fires, but also a host of problems that follow in their wake, by ripening conditions for famine, as well as the transmission of diseases such as cholera, measles and malaria and the rapid spread of the Zika virus, which is also carried by mosquitos and is currently suspected in driving a dramatic rise of birth defects.

What’s fueling much of this concentrated spate of natural catastrophes is the return of a global weather phenomenon known as El Niño, and it has put many working in the The Salvation Army’s disaster relief on alert.

“[We] do find ourselves responding to quite a number of disasters which have been linked to [it],” according to Major Heather Poxon, an international projects officer at The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters in London. “For example, currently we have a Rapid Response project in Papua New Guinea for drought, and Malawi is submitting a proposal for drought relief following floods,” she said in an email, noting “both countries [are] recognizing the effect of El Niño.”

Experts are wondering if this El Niño might turn out to be the most intense episode yet, topping even the legendary El Niño seasons of 1982-3 and 1997-8.

“We’re comfortable saying this is one of the top three events since records began being kept in 1950,” said Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “That’s substantial. That’s historic.”

Although some reports seemed to indicate that El Niño peaked this past December or January, there’s not a full consensus on that yet. Bill Patzert, a research scientist and El Niño expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says late January data showed it’s still picking up steam. As a point of reference, El Niño peaked in February in 1998 and March in 1983.

Winter typically brings El Niño’s most active season in North America, and in the coming weeks, it will likely continue to make its presence felt in the U.S., across which it has already helped fuel a burst of deadly tornadoes in December, significant flooding along the Mississippi, and the late January blizzard that shut down New York City, left 74,000 people along the east coast without power and required meteorologists in the D.C. area to call in the National Guard to get them to work.

But while such disasters can wreak havoc, “in some ways, the droughts are more punishing,” Patzert said.

El Niño-influenced droughts have already precipitated crop failures from Papua New Guinea to Ethiopia. In sub-Saharan and southern Africa, brutally dry weather could linger into the summer, exacerbating a famine already drawing comparisons to the humanitarian crisis of 1984. Around the world, food prices on staples such as sugar and dairy are already shooting up, with those of rice, wheat and coffee likely to rise as well. Fed by a long, unseasonably dry season in certain areas, brushfires have sent thousands of acres up in smoke, laying waste to some of the oldest trees on the planet in places like Tasmania.

“There is no place on the planet that doesn’t have the fingerprint of El Niño,” Patzert said.

As summer rolls in around the globe, vulnerable populations could also have dangerous heat waves to contend with. “A huge El Niño effects not just weather and the jet stream,” Patzert said. “Temperatures are affected too.” In past El Niños, scientists found that phenomenon translated into hotter days mostly in El Niño’s second year. That was true in 1983 and in 1998, and while temperatures in 2015 just hit records highs, scientists are already suggesting 2016 could set new ones.

Higher temperatures make weather events more extreme. El Niño or not, that’s probably the new normal, and it has serious implications for disaster relief.

“We are working together with countries around the world to help communities to be prepared and resilient in the face of increasing disasters,” Poxon wrote. “Just last week, people from 22 different countries came together for a workshop in order to understand the environmental threats and how best to mitigate against them.”

By example, Poxon points to a project in Bangladesh, a country in which more children die from drowning in regular flooding than anywhere else in the world. There, The Salvation Army has initiated a program teaching children how to swim. At the same time, they’re working to clear local rivers of debris and weeds, in order to help release flooding, while building bridges over them, so as to provide people with safe escape routes from rising waters.

According to Patzert, there is no stopping global warming now, but putting the brakes on it remains an option. “The only question,” he said, “is do you want to get hit in the head with a shot put or a softball?”


What is an El Niño?

El Niños are climatic events naturally occurring roughly every two to seven years, which mark a cyclical shifting in the east to west winds over the Pacific Ocean. 

What causes an El Niño?

El Niños are driven by temperature differentials in the Pacific, and they result in heat previously stockpiled in the ocean being released into the atmosphere. There, it meets up with the jet stream, with potentially dramatic consequences for global weather patterns.

How long do they last?

Generally, El Niño conditions hang around for about twelve months, spanning over two calendar years. Current predictions suggest this one should weaken significantly over the late spring and early summer months—most likely May, June and July—dissipating entirely by mid-to-late summer.

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