Thursday, July 30, 2015

Aquí viene El Niño

All the indications are that this coming year will be a "super El Niño" year, a freak meteorological event that may relegate the effects of global warming to the shadows, at least temporarily (although there is some evidence that the more frequent El Niño's in recent decades, and particularly the incidence of so-called "super El Niño's", may well be directly related to climate change).
El Niño conditions occur every few years when the waters of the Eastern Pacific become warmer than usual due to a shift in the trade winds. During El Niño years, the usual east-west trade winds in the region reverse, pushing warm surface water eastwards, making Central and South America warmer and wetter than usual, and leaving Asia and Australasia cooler and drier. This plays havoc with normal weather patterns in both of these areas, and has potential worldwide economic implications.
It seems like the current El Niño conditions will almost certainly continue well into 2016, and it is thought that we may be faced with one of the strongest El Niño's in the last fifty years.
What might this mean in practical terms? Well, up until recently, Latin America has been experiencing extremely dry conditions, and many crops, particularly important export cash crops like coffee and sugar cane, are already quite water-stressed. Wetter conditions under El Niño may alleviate this problem to some extent, but will probably also adversely affect the taste of the coffee beans and the sucrose content of the sugar cane. So, expect your morning latte to taste just a little worse.
The effects on Asia, though, may be much more profound. Drier weather will probably reduce the output of rice (the staple food of most of Asia) throughout the region, driving its price up. India's soybean and oilseed production may also take a substantial hit, with knock-on effects for the price of the main alternative, palm oil. Australia's huge wheat crop may also be dramatically affected, with concomitant effects on world prices, as may China's water-greedy corn crop.
Negatively-impacted Asian producers may well see much of their agricultural exports move to less-affected American and South American growers. But the odds are that, in our globalized world economy, major supply and price challenges can be expected, no matter what. How things will play out in terms of extreme weather events like cyclones is anyone's guess at this point.
Canada is not usually directly affected in a big way by El Niño, although the current hotter-than-usual temperatures, droughts and record forest fires in the West of the country are due in good part to it. It is also expected to bring a warmer-than-usual winter, which may cause even worse conditions next year.

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