It’s that time again. Trade winds in the Pacific are blowing west to east, pushing warm water to the surface. In times past, those conditions created havoc with much of the world’s weather creating everything from fires to floods, sometimes, in epic proportions. Some weather models predict this year’s El Niño could rank among the worse.
El Niño (“boy child” in Spanish) has been around for a long time, but it was only in the early Eighties that scientists realized the global impact of these events. Their potential veracity is difficult to predict because they interact with other natural climate factors, which can change the outcome.
Since predicting the strength of a potential El Niño is about as risky as predicting the direction of the stock market, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will only deal in probabilities. They predict an 85% chance that El Niño this year will be “strong.” So far this summer the 2015 El Niño is about tied with the 1997-1998 El Niño in terms of intensity. That’s a bit troublesome since the 1997-98 disturbance turned out to be a record-setting event.
The social and economic impact of an El Niño on the United States varies, depending upon where you live and the changing weather patterns. This year, we will feel the strongest impacts of El Niño in the fall and winter. Some of us could actually benefit somewhat, depending upon where you live.
In New England, one can expect a milder winter than average. Snowfall should be less and winter temperatures above average, although we could still experience a few Nor’easters, especially in the beginning and end of the season. The east coast, overall, should see a much calmer hurricane season. That would be good news in terms of lower heating bills, storm damage, lower insurance claims and business disruption, especially in the retail sector.
Other areas of the country might not be so lucky. In general, summer agricultural crops in the U.S. and Canadian grain belts do well but winter crops not so much. Most often the weather change will bring cooler wetter winters to most southern states. A strong El Niño often brings heavy rains to places like Texas, the Southern Plains and California.
That might not be a bad thing if it breaks the horrendous drought that has strangled the food and farming economies in these areas for the past few years. The issue will be how much is enough? Back in 1997-1998, heavy rains created terrible flooding, mudslides and death, especially in California. In February, 1998, a series of storms caused $550 million in damages and killed 17 people in California.
All in all, the U.S. tends to avoid the worst effects of El Niño, while countries in Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa and Latin America bear the brunt of these weather patterns. I experienced those conditions first hand while visiting and investing in Peru, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in 1997-1998.
In Peru, entire towns were wiped away in terrible landslides. Mountains literally tumbled into the Pacific Ocean, burying everything in their path. Fires in Indonesia were so bad that the entire region was blanketed by haze and smog that left your clothes and skin black with ash. These uncontrolled fires decimated crop production in one country after another causing poverty, starvation and ultimately social unrest.
The decline in food production by so many nations had a beneficial impact on our own farming exports but at the expense of so many others. Hopefully, this time around, if El Niño is as bad as some predict, governments in those potential danger areas will be more prepared. But how much they can do, aside from controlling the customary slash and burn style of agriculture, is questionable.
There is no guarantee that this El Niño will develop into another record-breaking event. But temperatures to date this year are already far above average around the planet and many weather models are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record. That simply increases the odds that this boy child of a weather pattern could evolve into a real temper tantrum of nature.