It is ironic that a phenomenon named for the Christ Child, El Nino, is about to bring death and destitution to a swathe of the developing world and natural disasters to parts of Northern Europe and North America.
This winter, the oscillation between warm and cool currents and high and low atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific Ocean, called El Nino because it appears around Christmas time, is the strongest it has ever been. Scientists aren’t sure why, but some wonder if it is because of “the blob,” an area covering a million square kilometers in the north Pacific Ocean, which is three degrees Celsius warmer than the rest of the ocean. Between 2013 and 2015, it stayed in one place, not dissipating as expected, although it is slowly dissolving now. The warm water temperature has affected the whole ecosystem, from marine life to weather, causing the jet stream to split and bringing warm temperatures to the far North and the south, but almost no rainfall to the middle of the American continent. This, combined with the warm Chinook wind, raised the temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska to 48 degrees Fahrenheit on December 30, although it descended to normal the next day.
Over the Pacific Ocean, the lack of storms mean colder water from deep in the ocean isn’t sucked up to mix with the surface water, allowing the surface to continue to warm.
El Nino, and its opposite, La Nina or The Little Girl, oscillate back and forth, alternating atmospheric pressure and warm and cold currents. The cycle is between two and seven years, and the effect lasts between nine months and two years. When El Nino is in effect, the Pacific fishing industry suffers because warmer water has fewer nutrients and therefore supports less marine life. The coral reefs suffer because warmer water softens the shells of the creatures who build them and leads to the dreaded bleaching and death. The shellfish industry is threatened because softer shells mean fewer creatures. In the Northern hemisphere, El Nino causes warmer, drier winters, but in the South, it can cause increased rainfall with a corresponding increase in the malarial mosquito population.
El Nino is growing in frequency and intensity. Historically, the drought and famine that it can bring have been accused of sparking everything from the French Revolution to the demise of the Moche culture in Peru. This year, there are concerns about crop failure and threatened food security in Latin America and Africa because of El Nino. Thirty-nine million people in Africa will need food aid in 2016, according to the UN, because of the failure of staple crops.
The recent, disastrous floods in Britain and the US, which have left thousands of people homeless, can also be blamed on El Nino, made worse by climate change. 2015 saw the greatest number ever of “named” storms, including nine hurricanes which were category three or higher. The Mississippi watershed is currently seeing flood levels that are more like spring conditions. Nine million people in 17 states have been affected so far, and they will be cleaning up for the next six to eight months. And this is before the actual spring storms. Insurance companies can’t keep paying for this kind of damage, so many people will go under, literally and figuratively.
It is likely that we are seeing the rapid escalation of the environmental effects that Al Gore warned us about, years ago. The Arctic ice is melting fast and the faster it melts, and the more fresh water is mixed into the oceans, the more unsettled our weather is going to be.
On a more serious note, on Facebook, when you scroll on your phone or your mobile device, some videos just start playing. They never used to do this until you clicked “play.” About four days ago, I was innocently watching a polar bear dancing but then I clicked the sound and realised what was really going on. I urge you not to watch it. I can’t un-see what I saw but it was the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Please sign the petition below.