For most people, unless they’ve been living under a particularly well-placed rock, 2016 was a year of upheaval and eye-opening events. There was the loss of many famous faces — including David Bowie, Carrie Fisher and Leonard Cohen — and the appointment of President Donald Trump, who thinks that climate change is a hoax. This is an odd view indeed, considering the devastating natural phenomena that left whole countries battered and reeling, such as El Niño, which has placed South Africa’s water reserves and agricultural sector under enormous pressure.
“El Niño and La Niña are two extremes of an oscillation known as Enso (El Niño Southern Oscillation). Enso comes in three forms: warm events called El Niño years; cold events called La Niña years; and neutral events called neutral Enso years, where the Pacific Ocean equatorial waters are neither exceptionally warm nor cool,” says Nico Groenewald, Standard Bank head of agriculture. “For South Africa, El Niño usually results in higher than normal temperatures and dry conditions, while La Niña causes normal to above-normal rainfall.”
The summer of 2015/2016 was the driest in more than 100 years, and the impact on the grain and livestock industries was significant. The reduced production volumes saw an increase in imports, which required foreign currency and this, in turn, impacted on prices. Maize was one of the hardest hit with prices trading upwards of import parity levels and beyond. This saw food inflation peak at 11.7% in 2016, hitting lower income homes the hardest. Farmers could not plant or could not harvest enough to break even and they suffered heavy financial losses. Some sugar mills in KwaZulu-Natal were forced to close as cane production hit its lowest ebb in more than 25 years.
“The last El Niño was the strongest ever recorded — we refer to this type of event as a ‘strong’ or ‘super’ El Niño,” says Professor Francois Engelbrecht, chief researcher, CSIR. “This El Niño effectively combined with global warming to make 2015/2016 the warmest year ever recorded. Every weather station broke its record for the December-February season and we experienced a very high frequency of heat waves, one after the other.”
In short, the drought brought on by El Niño will have far-reaching consequences that may still be shaking the food industry by the time that the next event rolls around. This is why research may well prove to be an essential tool in helping South Africa and the rest of the world prepare for these climactic events, giving both the populace and public sector the time they need to ensure they can survive.
“There are two primary pillars in research; the first is about developing forecast systems that can provide early warning of upcoming events and their impacts. We refer to this as Seasonal Interactive Forecasts,” explains Engelbrecht. “The other is research into how global warming will impact on the planet decades into the future; how will this affect South Africa, and will our situation stay the same or get any worse. We are trying to find the answers to these important questions with our research.”
The good news is that organisations such as the CSIR, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Nations and the International Institute for Climate and Society are all focusing on finding ways to address the challenges of climate change and weather phenomena, and can now predict patterns as early as six months in advance. Already, in April 2015, the CSIR had started to issue warnings about the upcoming super El Niño, giving the relevant agencies and organisations the time required to prepare. And, in January 2017, two scientists won the 2017 Vetlesen Prize for achievement in Earth sciences for their work on El Niño. S George Philander of Princeton University and Mark Cane of Columbia University managed to unwrap some of the complexities that layer the world’s weather systems to allow for more accurate forecasts. Their work is playing a huge role in helping countries prepare for incoming droughts or flooding.
“There are many research streams considering the phenomena of El Niño and La Niña and their impact on climate, the environment and society,” says Professor Bimo Nkhata, director, water research node, Monash South Africa. “Currently there is no strong agreement among scientists on the effects of these two phenomena on climate change, but there has been significant progress in their impact on economy and society.”
Despite the disagreements on the association between El Niño, La Niña and climate change, one thing agreed upon is that both phenomena are expected to make weather patterns more variable, extreme in both directions, and unpredictable. Weather patterns are likely to shift to more intense and frequent drought periods, interspaced with short periods of flash floods. Droughts are also likely to increase in frequency, severity and duration.
“The severity of floods and droughts will increase with climate change and the more severe events will impact on GDP, economy, food, agriculture, insurance and more,” says Karen King, senior associate, hydrology, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff in Africa. “Currently research points to us transitioning from a weak El Niño and moving into a neutral phase in the middle of the year.”
Engelbrecht has some depressing news. Usually, after a super El Niño event, there is a strong La Niña — the summer of 1999/2000 remains one of the wettest ever recorded for the southern Africa region. And yet, this time around it didn’t happen.
“There was a belief that we would experience a big La Niña event, but it didn’t materialise,” says Engelbrecht. “Then we expected that it would come in 2017/2018, but we have now just reached a point where it is reliable enough to make a forecast, and all indications are that we will not see a strong La Niña again. So, the event with the water that we need still isn’t on the cards. There are going to be drastic temperature increases and more events — we will see an increase in all types of freak weather events across the planet, and soon even those who deny climate change won’t be able to anymore.”
Should the current predictions around the arrival La Niña remain consistent, it is very likely that the country is headed towards another drought. In fact, most climate change models point to the fact that instead of the El Niño and La Niña events occurring every 10 years, they are likely to become more frequent. Africa can expect to see them every five years by the end of the century, and the continent is on track to becoming drier as climate change continues to impact the planet. It is time for everyone to sit up and pay attention, even that guy drinking a latte in Sandton.
“In my opinion, a personal interest in weather anomalies should be sought out and nurtured within each individual living on the planet,” says Jordan Weird, equities trade, BayHill Capital. “After all, the climate and weather were here long before us. As quickly as they come and go, they never promise that they won’t take us away with them when they decide to leave. The least we could do is take an interest, for our own sakes.”