Brace for impact: Super El Niño

As I have mentioned in a previous post, 2015/16 El Niño period have shown signs of becoming stronger than the devastating 1997/98 El Niño. Now weekly measurements are showing that it indeed has passed the record high of 1997/98 with temperatures in the central Pacific of 3°C above normal. November is likely to be strongest month of the El Niño season that lasts until spring next year.

The ongoing El Niño has already caused a number of serious impacts globally. For example, warmer waters have lead to major coral bleaching events and according to the UN, 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water in eastern and southern Africa, while 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as El Niño exacerbates a prolonged drought.

Regional Impacts

South East Asia: Dryer conditions in Southeast Asia has helped fuel massive peatland wildfires in Indonesia. This has caused dense haze to cover many parts of Indonesia and neighbouring countries with serious health impacts for local populations and has released a huge amount of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, making Indonesia a major contributor to climate change.

South Asia: Lack of precipitation in India due to changes in the southwest monsoon has also caused dryer conditions and risk of drought with potentially serious impacts on farmers and subsistence livelihoods. Especially since India suffered a deficient monsoon, lack of precipitation, last year as well. Meanwhile in Myanmar (Burma) a Tropical Storm drenched the western region and caused a massive landslide. More than 17,000 homes were destroyed, 46 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of people were affected by the storm.

Southern Africa: A number of countries in southern Africa are reporting below average rainfall leading to drought conditions and fears of food insecurity. South Africa is in the midst of its worst drought since 1982, with 2.7 million households facing water shortages and farmers that cannot plant crops because of lack of precipitation. Some cities have implemented water restrictions, drastically reducing the amount of water residents can use. Regional prices for staple foods like maize meal, bread, eggs and chicken are up several percentage points. “When the maize crop goes down, the circumstances for social unrest go up … This is exactly how the Arab spring in the Middle East started, said Louis Meintjes, president of the Transvaal Agriculture Union.

South America: Ecuador and Peru has suffered from flooding, extensive erosion, mudslides with loss of lives and infrastructure as well as damage to food supplies. Peru has declared a state of emergency as the country prepares itself for the worst weather system in over 60 years. Eastern Brazil is experiencing a major drought, driven by population pressure and deforestation, that could be worsened by dryer El Niño conditions. Satellite data shows the southeast of Brazil losing 56 trillion liters of water in each of the past three years - more than enough to fill Lake Tahoe. Water rationing, power blackouts and empty reservoirs in parts of the country have become a reality. More than 11,000 forest fires have been observed in the Amazonas province of Brazil this year, a 47% increase over the same period last year, according to the National Institute for Space Research. The storms that usually keep the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America wet shift northward to the southern US during strong El Niño winters. According to the World Food Program, 3.5 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador need food aid due to drought and crop failures.

North America: According to NOAA, almost 95% of U.S. coral reefs will have been exposed to ocean conditions that can cause corals to bleach by the end of the year. El Niño has also contributed to a very active tropical cyclone season in the Western North Pacific and Eastern North Pacific. Hurricane Patricia, which made landfall in Mexico on 24 October, was reportedly the most intense tropical cyclone in the western hemisphere ever recorded. While category 5 Hurricane Patricia weakened rapidly after hitting the rugged terrain along Mexico’s Pacific coast, remnants of the storm combined with other weather systems over the Gulf of Mexico to produce heavy downpours and widespread flooding in Texas and Louisiana

El Niño conditions and disease risk

The development of these conditions also has important implications for global public health. Multiple epidemiological studies have linked El Niño events with increased incidence of disease outbreaks.

Climatic influence
Great Lakes region, Bangladesh, India (coastal), Sri Lanka, Peru
Warmer water temperatures promote bacteria proliferation; flooding causes contamination of water sources.
Indonesia, Thailand, Pacific Islands, Australia (Queensland), Mexico, United States (southern), Colombia, Ecuador (coastal)
Water storage promotes mosquito vector breeding; elevated temperatures reduce the incubation period.Elevated rainfall promotes mosquito breeding.
China (eastern), United States (southwest)
Elevated rainfall increases food availability for rodents which expands populations and may promote contact with humans.
Brazil (eastern), Costa Rica, Colombia
Warmer temperatures or dry conditions may favor sand fly vectors or contribute to waning human immunity (e.g., via malnutrition or temporarily suppressing disease transmission).
China (Anhui Province), India/Pakistan (Punjab), Sri Lanka, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela
Elevated rainfall promotes mosquito vector breeding and survival.
Madagascar, United States (western)
Heavy rains increase food availability for populations of susceptible rodents; cooler temperatures may increase infectious flea abundance.
Rift Valley Fever
East Africa
Flooding of dry mosquito vector habitats promotes hatching of infected eggs, vector breeding and survival.
Respiratory Illness
Southeast Asia/Indonesia
forest fires cause air pollution that may increase risk of respiratory infection


Out of the ashes into the fire


  1. Considering the warmth of the oceans that must have existed during prior warming periods with much higher global temps than we experience today, it seems inappropriate to consider much of our climate amplitudes as "super" in any way. During the Holocene A and B warnings, things must truly have been "super", within the context of the earth's climate post Young Dryas. But that perspective seems lacking in those without a firm grounding in the geologic and paleoclimate history of our world.

    More physical science training for everyone!

  2. First of, I didn't discuss climate change in this post so kind of irrelevant comment. Second, sure there have been previous warm periods in Earth's history but not when there were 7 billion people on the planet. This post only deals with observations, of course you might disagree with wordings but that's just semantics, the facts remain the same.