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2000-27 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 27, 2000

Developing Countries: Prepare Now for Next El Nino, Says UN Study Led by NCAR Scientist

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BOULDER -- Now is the time for vulnerable countries around the globe to begin preparing for the next El Nino, according to a United Nations (UN) preliminary report issued today. The report presents the results of a 19-month study of 16 countries that examined what worked and what didn't in national responses to the forecasts and impacts of the 1997-98 El Nino. Dubbed the "El Nino of the Century," that event's worldwide impacts took hundreds of lives and left behind at least $32 billion in damages. The report suggests ways to improve societal responses to extreme climate events.

"The 1997-98 event was a wake-up call," says the study's principal investigator, Michael Glantz, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). "Awareness of what El Nino can do to societies and economies is now high." Between El Nino events is the best time to improve understanding of the phenomenon and devise ways to better cope with its potential direct and indirect effects, he adds. The 1997-98 El Nino spawned droughts, floods, fires, and frost around the world, resulting in loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, depletion of food and water reserves, displacement of communities, and outbreaks of disease.

In spring 1999 the UN Environment Programme received a $650,000 UN Foundation grant to organize the El Nino study, requested by the UN General Assembly. UNEP and NCAR took the lead, working closely with UN partners--the World Meteorological Organization, International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and UN University. NCAR's primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation.

A study team was established for each of the 16 countries to assess its response to the 1997-98 El Nino forecast. Participating nations are Bangladesh, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, and Vietnam. A full summary report and the complete 16-country study, to be published in December, will address the challenges faced by these nations and recommend specific actions to help reduce devastation from the next El Nino.

Because of its periodic nature and the somewhat predictable pattern of its impacts, El Nino allows the earliest warning for climate- related disasters and an opportunity for long-range planning in affected countries, says Glantz. The preliminary report issued today calls for the following actions, among many others:

  • Involve the heads of states early in climate disaster policy and action

  • Create regional organizations focused strictly on El Nino impacts

  • Designate funding to map the world's most vulnerable populations

  • Improve forecasting of the impacts and onset of El Nino

  • Educate local educators and decision-makers on how to best use El Nino forecasts

  • Develop a scientific establishment within each country to use research results from other countries

  • Deploy a network of fixed ocean buoys in the Indian Ocean to collect meteorological information (a similar network already exists in the Pacific)

    Glantz is the author of Currents of Change: Impacts of El Nino and La Nina on Climate and Society (Cambridge University Press), which explains what El Nino and La Nina are, how they can be forecast, and how they affect climate around the world. The second edition, available next month, examines the major El Nino of 1997-98 and suggests how societies can manage climate-related activities and disaster preparation.

  • filename: glantz.tif

    Michael Glantz. Photo courtesy of the National Center for Atmospheric Research/UCAR/NSF.

    filename: elnino2.tif

    Temperature anomalies show the departure from the normal sea surface temperatures in December 1997, near the peak of the 1997-98 El Nino. Red shows where the water is warmer than average and blue where it is cooler. El Nino shows up as the large red area off the west coast of South America. (Image courtesy National Center for Atmospheric Research; data courtesy National Centers for Environmental Prediction and NCAR.)

    -The End-

    See also:
    UN news release
    UN report summary
    Currents of Change

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