El Niño has probably peaked, but focus on drought preparations

That’s the advice for India’s policymakers from Rupa Kumar Kolli, an expert with the world meteorological body that has declared 2015 the hottest year on record


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | February 4, 2016

Rupa Kumar Kolli, chief of Climate Predictions and Adaptation Branch and an El Niño expert at the WMO
Rupa Kumar Kolli, chief of Climate Predictions and Adaptation Branch and an El Niño expert at the WMO

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) finally confirmed on January 25 that 2015 was the warmest year since record-keeping began in the late 19th century. The confirmation came five days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the US, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the UK Met Office released their data declaring that last year smashed all records for the highest average surface global temperatures – the year witnessed an increase of 0.76° Celsius temperature from the long-term average between 1961 and 1990. 

Last year, 10 months had achieved the rare distinction of being the hottest respective months, on record, in the last 136 years of record-keeping. Though WMO had announced ahead of the Paris climate conference in October last year that the margin of global temperature increase is already 0.7° Celsius above the average global temperatures of the baseline period of 1961-1990, final confirmation of a 20 percent increase from the previous record – in 2014 it was 0.57° Celsius higher than that of the 1961-90 average – has sent climatologists and policymakers into a tizzy.

Meanwhile, some sceptics like David Kreutzer of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis in the US believe that “2015 is the warmest year in a problematic dataset. It is one of the warmest in a much shorter, but arguably more reliable, dataset. But the important conclusion is that neither data set points to catastrophic warming.”

The month of December in the northern hemisphere and in many parts of the world including India has been unusually warm, prompting the spokesperson for WMO, Clare Nullis, to remark that all those wishing for a white Christmas can “dream on”. December reached a global high of 2° Fahrenheit above normal temperatures. 

Scorching heat waves engulfed Russia, China, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and parts of South America while devastating floods hit southern India, Paraguay and the UK in the months of November and December.

One of the main culprits for such upheavals in the weather and the climate is unusually strong El Niño that hit the Earth last year. El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a fluctuation of the ocean-atmosphere system that originates in the tropical Pacific and intensely affects the tropics and countries in Africa, Latin America, particularly Peru and Ecuador, and South and South-East Asia, particularly India. El Niño and its colder counterpart, La Niña, are associated with characteristic patterns of rainfall and temperature, which can include extreme events such as flooding and drought.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is increasingly concerned about food security in southern Africa where an estimated 14 million people are facing hunger following prolonged dry spells that led to a poor harvest last year. There, El Niño has left a strong imprint.
WMO, however, warns that there is yet no conclusive evidence of the impact of climate change on the frequency, intensity and influence of El Niño/La Niña events. But, “typical ENSO-related impacts may be strengthened or weakened by background climate change,” states a WMO literature on El Niño.

Though there is also no conclusive impact of El Niño on the powerful blizzard that recently hit the eastern coast of the US, experts say that it may have intensified the storm. “What is somewhat more unusual for an El Niño year is for the storm to reach as far north as New York City,” Anthony Barnston who studies El Niño at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society in the US told the Daily Mail. If this is indeed an influence of El Niño, then this could be a first in a series of major storms, especially for southeastern US.

Experts agree that the current El Niño has already started peaking and is likely to decline after March and April, thus, returning to a neutral or a La Niña event. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that although adverse climate conditions might lessen after January 2016, the health consequences of an estimated 60 million people will likely worsen as the full effects of El Niño would be felt throughout 2016. The WHO said seven countries – Tanzania, Kenya, Chad, Somalia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Peru – would be at greatest risk in 2016.

Rick Brennan, WHO’s director of emergency risk management and humanitarian response, said a devastating El Niño such as the current one has “a broad range of potential impacts” on human health – “from malnutrition to infectious diseases to disruptions of health services. And, again, it is the most vulnerable, it is the poorest countries, it is the elderly, it is the children that are the most impacted”. He particularly warned against increased vector-borne disease outbreaks like dengue and malaria, cholera epidemics, communicable disease outbreaks like malaria and scabies, and increased respiratory infections.

Some weather forecasters and climate scientists have said that 2016 will push the records further up due to the lingering effects of El Niño into spring.

Governance Now spoke with Rupa Kumar Kolli, chief of Climate Predictions and Adaptation Branch and an El Niño expert at the WMO, about the climate predictions for 2016, how El Niño works, its India connection, and the likely impacts of the current El Niño event on the Indian monsoons. Edited excerpts from the interview:

WMO confirmed on January 25 that 2015 was the hottest year on record. According to the British Met Office, 2016 will be hotter. What are WMO’s predictions for this year?
We are not yet started in providing assessed information on the predictions [by various meteorological offices] – the typical long-range predictions. We have some mechanism to assess seasonal predictions and some mechanism to assess long-term projections. You should also be able to distinguish between these two – predictions and projections – which are not the same. Through predictions we provide information about future conditions but there is no way we can change them, meaning, they are going to happen. Whereas in projection, it is based on what you are doing – there you have an option to change your activities to get the desired outcome. So projections give you an opportunity to change the outcome by changing your human response to climate change. They are given to help us take policy decisions – to tell which is the right way to move. For example, if the models are giving information that something drastic will happen and if you go about [with your] business-as-usual [approach], then you actually have to take action. Whereas in [a] prediction there is no option – it is going to happen.

So when the British met office says 2016 is going to be the “hottest year”, is it a prediction?
It is a prediction and no matter what you do, it will happen. The science [of predictions] is still in a research mode. Even the met offices do this on a research mode. There are still some issues related to the model skills that people have to get the confidence in. And we also need more such forecasts, more groups giving such confident forecasts when we can say these forecasts are reliable. Otherwise, it is a matter of interest, academic interest, but we have to take [forecasts] with precaution. Though they [British met office] are doing it in real time we have to remember it is one model. We expect other groups also to start doing this. In fact, there are also groups looking at decadal forecasts. But there again is [the] problem of model skills – people are still not confident that they have addressed all the problems. But very soon we expect to see decadal forecasts to be routinely available which will be a great help for policy [framing], particularly for long-term planning.

What is El Niño? Could you please explain how it works to cause climate imbalances and how long is its cycle?
Once it [an El Niño] establishes itself, typically it peaks around the winters, then it [one event of El Niño] is [lasts] from six to nine months. Sometimes it fizzles out in three months. And then it recurs with an irregular frequency of two to seven years. Sometimes you don’t see an El Niño happening for seven years at a stretch, sometimes it can come within two years – so it doesn’t have regular periodicity.

The temperatures above the tropical Pacific become anomalously warm. This is mainly because what happens in the tropics [is that] we have what are known as “trade winds” or easterlies. What they [easterlies] do is that they pile up the water on one side because of the wind stress on the water. Sometimes, the wind is weakened [and] the water flows back. Because it is piled up and because of gravity, it [the ocean water] flows back and brings a lot of warm water [with it]. The warm water spreads across this area [central and the eastern equatorial Pacific] and brings warmer temperature. When the sea water is warm it brings what is known as convection, that is, the warm air goes up and creates clouds and rainfall. So, during El Niño, Peru, Ecuador  get a lot of floods. At the same time, there is something known as East-West circulation, that is, the air rises and goes towards the east, then at the surface it comes back. But the problem is because of El Niño, it shifts from one side to another. For example, if you take the monsoon season, we have convection over the Indian region. Because of El Niño this convection shifts to the east. The whole pattern moves from west to east and then it is replaced by subsidence – the opposite of convection. Whenever there is subsidence, there are no clouds. That is the main reason why we get a dry or a weak monsoon when El Niño is there.

The current El Niño is stronger than the last major one seen in 1997-98. Last year, it played havoc with the Indian monsoon. What are the El Niño predictions for 2016?
This year in mid-February we are going to release another update to actually describe the current status of El Niño and how it will progress towards the remaining part of the year. But the information that I could gather from some of the major centres is that it has already reached its peak. Now it is slowly declining but it is still [a] very strong El Niño. And the expectation is that by, maybe, mid-spring, it will come to a neutral state – that is neither warm nor cold. Afterwards, it can either continue cooling or remain neutral – we still don’t have reliable prediction. So, in that sense, it is very unlikely that an El Niño will re-intensify but there are occasions when they have momentarily declined and then went up again. But the likelihood of that happening is very, very low. It may remain neutral or become its opposite phase, La Niña, which is good for the Indian monsoon. That is one possibility.

Assuming that El Niño re-emerges, what is the policy advice that you would give, say to the Indian government, to reduce the impact of this climatological occurrence?
Typically, if we have an El Niño in place and if it is relatively strong, I think preparations for dealing with drought should take precedence. It is very likely that you will have a water shortage problem. It doesn’t mean that floods won’t occur because on a smaller space and time scale you can always get high rainfall. For example, even in the last [Indian] monsoon, June was exceptionally strong. We had very good rainfall. In fact, people even said IMD’s forecast was wrong. But subsequently we ended up with a very ‘deficient’ situation – if you have seen the recent news coverage on IMD dropping the word ‘drought’. IMD has decided not to use the word ‘drought’ because drought is an effect of deficient rainfall. Drought is also something that is our response to a deficient condition. So what IMD has decided is that it will forecast only rainfall deficiency – whether it actually leads to drought or not will be decided by some other agency. They leave it to the state governments or administration. I think that is a significant decision which has some logic to it but at the same time there are met services which do provide what they call as meteorological droughts, hydrological droughts [that is] if you use your water efficiently you may not even feel the drought.

The Paris agreement signed in October last year is designed to help the world avoid some of the worst effects of climate change, but climatologists expect global temperatures to rise in the coming decades even if governments stick to their commitments. Do you think that is a fair assessment?
There is a fundamental scientific reasoning for that because greenhouse gases, once they enter the atmosphere, even if you stop emissions, they are going to stay there for at least 60-70 years. There is no way you can remove them from the atmosphere. For that reason, there will be some lag effect which will continue. So in those situations the only option left with us is to adapt. That is why mitigation actions are good but their effects are going to be seen almost after a generation. Within our generational time frame, I think we have to focus more on adaptation – know what is coming and how to cope with that. We also have to keep in mind mitigation because at some point we don’t know what will happen – this is called ‘abrupt climate change’ which can happen in a matter of few months or a year. There can be many causes. For example, there are people saying that in our lifetime we will see an ice-free Pole, at least, the North Pole. That [would be] is a catastrophic condition. It has consequences for sea levels and many other things. Abrupt climate change is a scientifically recognised possibility. There are some [climate] aspects that might happen [change] with very, very short notice. Mitigation can help us identify those tipping points. So 1.5 to 2° Celsius [increase] is related to that type of thing because if you exceed those levels then you can’t really predict what will happen. It also shows that humans have the capacity to change things on that scale – a planetary scale.



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