Now is the time for vulnerable countries around the globe to begin preparing for the next El Niño, according to a United Nations report being issued early next year. The report was prepared by a team led by principal investigator Mickey Glantz (Environmental and Societal Impacts Group) and funded by the UN Foundation.
A 19-month study of 16 countries examined what worked and what didn't in national responses to the forecasts and impacts of the 199798 El Niño. Droughts, floods, fires, and frost related to that eventdubbed the "El Niño of the Century"took hundreds of lives and left behind at least $32 billion in damage, including destruction of infrastructure, depletion of food and water reserves, displacement of communities, and outbreaks of disease.
"The 199798 event was a wake-up call," says Mickey. "Awareness of what El Niño can do to societies and economies is now high." According to Mickey, the periods between El Niño events (such as the neutral phase we're now in) are the best times to improve understanding of the phenomenon and devise ways to better cope with its potential direct and indirect effects.
|A revised and updated edition of Mickey Glantz's popular book Currents of Change: Impacts of El Niño and La Niña on Climate and Society (Cambridge University Press) has just been released. It examines the major El Niño of 199798 and suggests how societies can manage climate-related activities and disaster preparation. The SCDNational Centers for Environmental Prediction archive of sea-surface temperature data was used to create animations of the development of the 199798 El Niño and the 19982000 La Niña, which readers can view by flipping pages in the book.|
At the moment, says Mickey, there is "a general lack of belief among potential forecast users around the world in the reliability of the forecast." Uncertainties exist about the science of El Niño and how to use probabilistic forecasts of events and impacts.
Scientists and the media tend to refer to El Niño's environmental impacts as if they affect an entire country, notes the report. Yet, because of typically diverse topographical features, seldom is a whole country affected by the same El Niñorelated anomaly. For example, northern Peru and southeastern Brazil typically experience heavy rains and floods during El Niño. Southern Peru and northeast Brazil usually suffer from drought. Such in-country differences need to be better understood and articulated in order to maximize the usefulness of forecasts to governments, industries, the public, and the media, the study says.
Each event has its own surprises. During El Niño the Pacific coast of Costa Rica commonly suffers from drought, whereas its Atlantic coast remains wet. In 1997, thousands of cattle were moved away from the Pacific coast to the north-central region to escape a predicted drought, only to perish because of an unexpected drought in the resettlement area.
The complete 16-country study, to be published early in 2001, addresses the challenges faced by these nations and recommends specific actions to help reduce devastation from the next El Niño. A preliminary report issued in October called for the following actions, among many others: