Disruption to climate from El Niño

Other Names:
Inclement weather caused by El Nino

The Spanish name, meaning "little boy", is an allusion to the Christ child because the warming current often flows near South and Central American coasts around Christmas.


Droughts in Australia are almost always associated with El Niño. El Niño also appears to coincide with drought in Africa; the droughts of 1972-73, 1982-83 and 1986-87 all occurred in El Niño years. El Niño usually means warm winters followed by dry summers for Europe and North America. El Niño has a short-term impact on the greenhouse effect. The forest fires of 1983 caused a measurable rise in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the longer-term, the greenhouse effect could look and feel very much like an almost permanent El Niño.

The latest El Niño was in the period 1995-97. In some places the effect continues into 1998. The damage is still to be assessed although it was probably stronger than that of 1982-1983, regarded as the strongest on record. Previous El Niños were in 1991 and 1987. It is possible that overall global warming or climate change has increased the frequency and severity of these El Nino events.

In 1998, authorities of the Panama Canal were forced to limit the weight of some ships travelling through it, the first time since 1983. 1997 was the driest year this century for the Canal region.

In 1997, forest and ground (peat) fires were still raging in 2 hot spots in Java, 23 in Sumatra, and 35 in Kalimantan, Indonesia. According to the World Conservation Monitoring Center, the fires in Indonesia threaten at least 19 protected areas, all internationally important. The pollutants in the smoke could have affected the health of up to five percent of 20 million people, many in ways that will only become evident between two and 10 years from now, exacerbating heart and asthma problems, and causing mental and brain disorders, inflammation and respiratory infections, skin and eye allergies. An increase in infectious diseases appears to be correlated with a significant reduction of ultra violet rays. This is because the main air quality problem in Sarawak is particles released from the carbon rich peat and rainforest trees rather rather than gases from the forest fires.

Nicholas Graham, director of the experimental forecast division of the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction described Indonesia as, "ground zero for El Nino." The drought caused across Southeast Asia between 1997-1998 by El Nino had a particularly strong effect upon Indonesia's rainfall, contributing significantly to the increased forest fires, but further, seriously disrupting the region's food production. With the region already suffering economic instability, this disruption in the food supply has prompted new development aid programmes to the region and increased concern for when existing rice stocks are used up.

The El Niño events of 1982-83 were blamed for 1,300 to 1,500 deaths worldwide, with damages of $2 billion to $8 billion. It triggered fires that destroyed an area of forest in Borneo the size of the Netherlands. The amount of carbon these extensive peat fires can throw up into the atmosphere is enormous, exceeding that of what Europe emits. There are still peat fires burning in the earth from 1983. China had floods in the south and drought in the north. Severe storms lashed the west coast of the USA, the first typhoon in 75 years hit French Polynesia, and Australia suffered the worst drought in 200 years with bush fires that killed 90 people. In the Galapagos islands, finches were so confused by the usually wet weather that they bred continually for eight months. Drought and flooding caused losses estimated at $650 million in northern Peru and southern Ecuador, and another $250 million in southern Peru and western Bolivia. The 1991 drought reduced the year's rice harvest and forced Indonesia to import rice for the first time in almost a decade.

The 1997-98 wet season of East and Central Africa, affected by El Nino, brought unprecedented rain, in places five times the annual average. Farmers across the region were unable to proceed with normal seasonal planting raising fears of later food shortages across the region. The economic effects on the coffee, tea and corn crops - main export earners - are expected to last for several years.The destruction of roads across the region severely disrupted the manifacturing sector as well as agriculture, preventing the movement of goods to local markets. More than 4,000 people are thought to have died because of the flooding and rain-related diseases, such as malaria and cholera.

Unusual weather conditions over 1997/98 are also attributed to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The 1997/98 El Niño developed more quickly and resulted in higher temperatures in the Pacific Ocean than ever recorded before. The presence of this mass of warm water dominated world climate patterns up to mid-1998, causing substantial disruption and damage in many areas, including temperate zones. Extreme rainfall and flooding, droughts and forest fires were among the major impacts. Forecasting and early warning systems, together with human, agricultural and infrastructural protection, have been substantially improved as a result of the most recent El Niño.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 13: Climate Action
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST