IT BLOWS hot. It blows slowly. It brings fire and rain, feast and famine. It affects weather around the world. It is called El Niño. And this year, another El Niño is in the offing, according to recent reports.
"This weather disturbance is considered an enemy that could cause damage to the environment, agriculture, and marine life. As such, it has destructive consequences to human life," the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) has pointed out.
Fishers of the far west shores of South America were the first to notice a dramatic climate change and name it. Usually, the currents in the waters where they fished were cold and flowed from east to west. But, in certain years, the currents flowed in the opposite direction and became very warm.
The air became more humid, and large thunderstorms developed. These years were bad for fishing, and it was difficult for the fishers to survive and feed their families. They noticed that this odd weather usually occurred in December, so they called it “El Niño” meaning “the child.”
Around the same time, other areas of the world had unusual floods, hurricanes, or drought. Scientists who studied the weather started to see a pattern in these changes. They found that every three to seven years, the Earth experienced a change in the weather. This change always began in the tropical Pacific Ocean, near the equator.
Scientists also believe that this event, now widely known as El Niño, has been happening for hundreds of years. Historians are dating the phenomenon at least as far back as early 1500s, when the Spanish conquistadores entered South America amid raging storms.
The El Niño cycle may be simple, yet, the energy reserves it carries is vast, almost unimaginable. Most reports say “it contain more energy than has been procured from all the fossil fuels burned in the United States since the beginning of the century – that’s all the gasoline in all the cars, the coal in all the power plants, the natural gas in all the furnaces. It would take more than a million large power plants, at 1,000 megawatts each, running full tilt for a year, to heat the ocean that much.”
During the El Niño phenomenon, people are more likely to experience a hotter and longer summer. Normally, temperatures during the dry season range from 30 to 37 degrees Celsius.
"But during El Nño, the temperature is three degrees higher than the normal, with temperatures reaching as high as 38 degrees Celsius,” says Filipino meteorologist Nathaniel Cruz.
Scientists rank El Niño as the number one force disturbing world climate patterns. It has caused damage worth billions of dollars around the world in droughts, floods, and other livelihood revenues.
Take the case of the 1982-83 El Niño events. It left more than 1,100 dead. In the United States, it caused an estimated US$8.1 billion in damage from flooding, drought and unusual hurricane activity, according to government estimates. California alone reported some US$1.3 billion in damage from a series of heavy storms and flooding.
In the Philippines, the 1982-83 El Niño had a lasting effect on the country’s weather condition. For instance, the Manila area did not have sufficient rainfall until 1985 hence no considerable flooding occurred during the southwest monsoon season.
When the normal southwest monsoon rains occurred in 1986, there was a great havoc caused by the floods in the Manila area and the Laguna Lake were also full, leading to the flooding of Taguig for some time n the 1986 until the early summer of 1987.
The absence of rain and consequent flooding in Metro Manila in 1982 and onwards led to complacently in the belief that floods would not occur. Hence, the canals and waterways were clogged with dirt and debris of four years of low rain in the metropolis.
"El Niñoevents occur on average every four or five years, but irregularly, they can be two years apart, or as many as 10 years," reminded an official of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Forewarned is forearmed, so goes a familiar saying. This must be the reason why the Laguna-based Pcarrd has come up with a compendium of materials on the abnormal weather entitled, The Fiery Fury of El Niño.
Since the drought is equated with drought in the Philippines, Pcarrd advised farmers to plant drought-tolerant crops in time of El Niño. Examples of such crops are sorghum, sweet peppers, asparagus, ube, tugue, alugbati, winged beans, cowpea, cucumber, kadios, camote, cassava, peanut, ginger, mung beans, and black peppers.
The following fruit trees are also drought-tolerant: cashew, mango, citrus, tamarind, avocado, jackfruit, guava, and grapes.
Watering, if necessary, must be done only during the cool part of the day – not on windy days. To keep the crops moist, cover them with mulch. Mulch is a layer of organic materials – usually – that is spread on the surface of the soil.
Where feasible, construct small water impounding reservoirs and other soil and water conservation measures (trench and contour canals, for instance) to catch and store water from rain or divert water from the source.
Since water is a precious commodity during the El Niño, people are urged to help mitigate the water crunch. Fix leaking faucets and pipes. Avoid running tap water while taking a bath; use a pail. Store water in the pail when shampooing hair, which can be used to flush toilet.