SYDNEY – A spike in Pacific Ocean sea temperatures and the rapid movement of warm water eastwards have increased concerns that an El Niño weather pattern this year could be one of the strongest in several decades, an Australian climate scientist said yesterday.
El Niño – a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific – affects wind patterns and can trigger both floods and drought in different parts of the globe, curbing food supply.
A majority of weather forecasting models indicate that an El Niño may develop around the middle of the year, but it was too early to assess its likely strength, the UN World Meteorological Organization said on April 15.
Wenju Cai, a climate expert at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said increases in Pacific Ocean temperature above those seen in previous El Niño years and the quick movement of warm water eastwards had raised fears of a significant event.
“I think this event has lots of characteristics with a strong El Niño,” said Cai.
“A strong El Niño appears early and we have seen this event over the last couple of months, which is unusual. The wind that has caused the warming is quite large and there is what we call the pre-conditioned effects, where you must have a lot of heat in the system to have a big El Niño event.”
He based his conclusions on studying data released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Meteorologists say the prospect of an El Niño will likely be firmed up in the next month or two, although forecasting the strength of such a weather event is hard to do.
The chance of an El Niño developing in 2014 exceeded 70 percent, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said on April 8.
Australia’s weather bureau will issue its next El Niño outlook report on Tuesday, while Japan’s meteorological agency is expected to update its forecast in the next couple of weeks.
The worst El Niño on record in 1997 to 1998 was blamed for massive flooding along China’s Yangtze River that killed more than 1,500 people.
A strong El Niño will also increase fears that production of many key agricultural commodities in Asia and Australia will suffer.
In the Philippines, the El Niño phenomenon is expected to bring below-average rainfall in the last quarter of this year until the first quarter of 2015.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) yesterday said El Niño may occur some time in June or July.
PAGASA climatologists said even if El Niño occurs in June, there is usually a three- to four-month lag time until the country feels its impact.
Malacañang on Sunday called on the public to conserve water, as the imminent threat of a continued dry spell could take as long as nine months or until early next year.
PAGASA said the water level in Angat Dam, where 90 percent of residents in Metro Manila get their water supply, including nearby provinces, may hit critical level this month due to less rainfall.
El Niño could also cause the behavior of tropical cyclones to be erratic, affecting their track and intensity, PAGASA said.
“The tropical cyclone tracks are expected to shift northward and intensity could become stronger,” Science Secretary Mario Montejo said, noting that Tropical Storm Ondoy and Typhoon Milenyo struck as the country was experiencing El Niño in 2009 to 2010 and 2006 to 2007, respectively.
The country experienced the worst El Niño in 1997 and 1998 in which the estimated damage to agriculture reached more than P3 billion.
An official of the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) yesterday said water conservation should be seriously observed at this point.
“In a worst-case scenario, local governments can make use of mobile water treatment facilities, maximize use of deep wells and may conduct cloud seeding operations,’ said Jorge Estioko, officer-in-charge of the deputy executive director’s office.
Based on the NWRB’s latest monitoring, Angat Dam’s water level was at 182.2 meters. The dam’s minimum operating level is at 180 meters.
However, Estioko assured the public that for this month, there is a 42-centimeter per second water supply allocation for Metro Manila.
He said that they are continuously monitoring Angat Dam and in case the water reaches critical level, reduction of water allocation has to be made.
“As early as March, we’ve monitored water level in Angat Dam to be relatively low. We always wanted for it to maintain its normal high water level of 212 meters but this can’t always be the case,” added Estioko.
Earlier reports said that with its evaporation rate of 0.30 meters daily, Angat Dam’s water level may hit critical elevation of 180 by the second week of May.
PAGASA officials said there may be more water evaporation in the dam during the El Niño months.
Decreasing but still normal
Meanwhile, the water level in Pangasinan’s San Roque Dam has been decreasing since January but it still remains normal. – Helen Flores, Aurea Calica, Eva Visperas, Jun Elias, Raymund Catindig, Rhodina Villanueva, Dino Balabo, Ric Sapnu