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How to Prepare for an El Nino Disaster

Natural Disasters & El NinoEl Nino is the periodic warming of the equatorial waters off the coast of South America. Peruvian fisherman were the first to notice the phenomenon and, because it occurred near Christmas, they named it "El Nino" - the Little Boy" or "Christ Child." Scientists now recognize El Nino as part of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, a large scale, global climate shift that causes extreme weather events around the world. Great El Nino bring natural disasters, economic damage, environmental destruction, sometimes even political upheaval. The two strongest El Nino occurred in 1982 and 1997 and their effects were catastrophic: flooding, hurricanes, drought, and disease leading to massive economic damage and lingering personal maladies. In 2015, meteorologists detected another El Nino began growing off the coast of South America, possibly the strongest in recorded history. The only way to prepare for an El Nino disaster is to examine past El Ni??os and brace ourselves for the devastation they wrought.

The 1982-1983 El Nino

By 1982, meteorologists had been studying El Nino and the Southern Oscillation for almost 60 years, but the meaning and impact of their research wasn't common knowledge. That changed when newspapers began reporting on some unusual warming off the coast of Peru, which they believed was tied to sulfur compounds released by a volcanic eruption in Mexico. In reality, the experts with the American Geophysical Union has misread the readings from their NOAA-7 weather satellite. There was an extensive and far reaching expanse of warm water reaching out into the heart of the Pacific Ocean. By the time reporters understood the cause, its effects were already being felt all over the Pacific. Drought struck Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea, leading to forest fires and crop failures. Five hurricanes formed over Hawaii and French Polynesia. Monsoon rains fell in the central Pacific. Marine wildlife dropped precipitously and over seventeen million birds fled the Christmas Islands in search of food. By December, drought had spread to the Philippines and Hawaii and the tropical jet stream shifted north to California and the northern Pacific.

The warm water around Peru and Ecuador sent anchovies and sardines scuttling south to Chile, ruining fish harvests, and massive rainstorms sweeping over North and South America. The Galapagos received six years worth of rain while the deserts in Peru, Ecuador, and southern Bolivia were swamped. The rain fell so hard, adobe houses melted and sewer systems burst. Ninety percent of the potato crop in Northern Bolivia perished. In the United States, strong rains caused over a billion dollars in flood damage to California and the Rocky Mountains. Ocean waters in the Pacific didn't return to normal until the end of 1983, and it wasn't until 1984 that the Gulf of Alaska finally recovered. The worldwide economic toll was over $8 billion.

The 1997-1998 El Nino

The El Ni??o in 1997-1998 was the strongest in recorded history. Like the 1982 El Nino, it caused the monsoon rains to fall over the central Pacific instead of East Asia. The dry conditions sparked enormous wildfires in Indonesia, the largest recorded in two centuries. Eight million hectares of land burned to the ground, creating a smoke cloud so massive it covered Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It was so thick, drivers had to switch their headlights on at noon to see. In Australia, over 23,000 people died as a combination of drought, floods, and cyclones swept through the country.

In North America, there was widespread flooding as severe rainstorms pounded Mexico and California. Los Angeles received a year's worth of rain in a month. The water overflowed flood channels and washed away roads and railroad tracks. Sink holes swallowed houses. In the east, the rain fell so often St. Louis only saw 80 hours of sunshine during the whole month of December. The Mississippi valley flooded and tornados hammered Florida. In the mountains, there was record snowfall. A crippling ice storm in Canada and New England caused $5-7 billion in damage and left over 4 million people without power, but it was South America that suffered the most.

Fishermen lost over $1 billion as fish steamed southward into colder waters. Chile's annual catch dropped by 40 percent. Then the rains came. Peru received five to six inches a day. The pounding rainfall broke the banks of the Piura River. Whole neighborhoods were swept away. Crops were ruined and livestock drowned, causing widespread famine. The runoff was so intense it created Peru's second largest lake, Lake La Nina - 90 miles wide and 20 miles long - in the middle of the Sechura Desert. When the rain finally receded, the stagnant water left behind became breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Over 30,000 people got Malaria. The suffering was so intense it stunted the growth of Peru's children for ten years after the event. Floods in Ecuador wiped out over 1500 miles of roads and 19 bridges and half a million people became homeless. While the west flooded, the east dried up. Columbia lost almost 7 percent of its annual crop yield to drought, Argentina lost one percent of its GDP, and Uruguay lost 10 percent of its rice.

Other parts of the world were affected too. Exceptionally dry weather led to water rationing in the Caribbean, even as torrential rains ruined crops in Africa and flooded Europe. Worldwide, El Nino caused $45 billion in damage, $25 billion in North America alone.

Historical El Nino

Measuring the impact of past El Nino is difficult due to the paucity of historical meteorological records, but we do know there was a long El Nino event in 1788-1794, which may have devastated crop yields in France and led to the French Revolution. Experts believe El Nino may have been the cause of the longer winters, wetter springs, and drier summers that exacerbated the French economy and inflamed political and social discontent.

El Nino may also have played a role in the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876-79. Drought led to crop failures and poor harvests. Between nine and thirteen million people starved. Families were forced to eats roots, carrion, leaves, and clay or sell their children and wives to buy food. In some provinces, there were even reports of cannibalism.

Causes of El Nino

Natural Disasters & El NinoEl Ninos are caused by a reversal of the Pacific Trade Winds. The Trade Winds are large cycles of air created by the Walker Circulation, named after Sir Gilbert Walker, the meteorologist who discovered the process in the 1920s. The Walker Circulation process begins when sunlight warms the waters around Asia and Australia, creating an enormous updraft of air and water vapor and a large, low pressure system in the western Pacific. As the vapor rises, it cools and condenses, creating rainstorms and monsoons. Then it's pushed eastward by currents in the upper atmosphere, causing it to cool further until it eventually descends on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, along the west coasts of North and South America. The low pressure system left behind by the upwell of warm air in the west draws the air westward along the surface of the ocean, creating the Trade Winds and completing the Walker Circulation.

As the Trade Winds blow over the ocean, they push the top layer of ocean water westward where it builds up around Indonesia (the western Pacific is normally 18 inches higher than the eastern Pacific). This causes cold water to bubble up in the east to replace the warm water being pushed west, creating a tilt in the thermocline, the boundary between the mixed layer of water near the surface of the ocean. While the warm water out west brings rain, the cold water along North and South America hinders it, but it also brings a huge upsurge in minerals and nutrients that enriches coastal waters and feeds the fishing industries in Ecuador and Peru.

Then every two to seven years, for reasons climatologists don't fully understand, this cycle reverses itself. The trade winds weaken, which creates a downswell in the Pacific Ocean that triggers a wave that travels eastward from Asia towards the Americas, known as a Kelvin wave. Kelvin waves are planetary waves. Planetary waves are like normal waves. They raise and lower sea levels over vast distances, but due to their enormous size, they're almost invisible on the surface. There are several types of planetary waves. Some, like Rossby waves, tavel back and forth across the ocean churning the upper layers of the ocean. Kelvin waves are unique in that they only travel west to east and only travel along the equator. As they go, they push the warm water around Asia eastward and disrupt the tilt of the thermocline. The layer of warm water in the western Pacific shrinks while the layer of warm water in the eastern Pacific grows. This creates a positive feedback loop, weakening the trade winds and the Walker Circulation even further, that leads to more warming and instigates an El Nino event.

2015 El Nino 

Natural Disasters & El Nino

Emergency Zone Severe Weather Kit 

In March 2015, scientists cataloguing the Oceanic El Nino Index (ONI), which measures water temperatures in the Pacific, noticed a considerable increase in ocean temperature. They initially thought the warm water might dissipate before the end of the year, but instead temperatures continued to rise, creating a band of warm water off the coast of Mexico and Peru that stretched halfway across the Pacific and caused abnormal ocean temperatures as far north as Alaska. Weak El Ninos raise the temperature of the Eastern Pacific approximately 0.5°C above normal. Strong El Ninos, like the kind that struck in 1982 and 1997, raise ocean temperatures over 1.5°C. The 2015 El Nino breached this threshold in September, putting it on track to match or exceed the strength of the 1982 and 1997 El Ninos, which peaked (respectively) at 2.1°C and 2.3°C above normal. Based on the warming they've seen so far, some scientists believe it the 2015 El Nino could reach 3.0°C above normal, what researchers describes as a "Godzilla El Nino."

What To Expect

If the 2015 El Nino continues growing as it has been, we should expect an intensification of the same natural disasters we experienced in 1982 and 1997. In North America, that means extreme rainfall and flooding in California, Texas, and the Southeast, as well as tornados in Florida. The extra moisture in the air may also cause blizzards and ice storms in New England similar to what Canada experienced in 1998. It's not all bad news, though. The winter Northwest and Midwest will probably be warmer, creating energy savings across the region (the USA saved $6.7 billion on heating costs during the 1997 El Nino) and there will probably be fewer hurricanes in the Caribbean. If you live in one of the areas adversely affected, here are a few ways to prepare.

Inspect Your RoofLook for signs of aging and damage such as loose shingles or sags. During heavy rainfall or snow, you may be facing leaks or possible collapse. Repair any damage you find
Clean Your GuttersBlocked gutters can cause spillover and runoff that damages your walls, ceiling, roof, and insulation. They increase your risk of rot and mold. Clean them before the weather gets bad and inspect them after a storm and clear out any new clogs
Buy Food and WaterLarge storms or floods can make it dangerous to travel, so stock up on extra food and water. Buy non-perishable food like canned soup, canned vegetables, canned fruit, beans, pasta, cereal, and rice
First AidIn a storm, emergency responders may take longer to reach you. Create a first aid kit or buy a ready-made first aid kit from a dealer like Air & Water. You'll need bandages, cloth tape, antiseptic wipes, gauze pads, cloth tape, and rubber gloves
Flashlight & BatteriesExtended power outages are very likely during floods and storms. Make you have a flashlight and extra batteries. Avoid candles. They're a fire hazard

Extra emergency supplies, such as stoves and fuel, radios, and emergency generators are also available on the Air & Water website. Make sure you're fully prepared for an El Nino disaster, and not just this year, but every year. If global weather continues its current pattern, scientists predict El Ninos will grow in frequency and intensity over the next several decades, and the stronger they are, the more havoc they can wreak.

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