Philippines braces for El Nino Phenomenon

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Not too many Filipinos are aware that we are now experiencing the El Niño phenomenon, which will last until middle of 2010, according to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA).

This is the reason why the Department of Agriculture (DA) has already created a task force which would carry out mitigating measures to avert the adverse effects of the dry-spell on food production of the country.

The mitigation programs will be implemented in 23 “highly vulnerable” areas.  In Mindanao, the identified provinces are Sarangani, South Cotabato, Misamis Oriental, and Zamboanga City.  From Visayas, the following areas have been listed: Capiz, Iloilo, and Negros Occidental.  The remaining areas are from Luzon:  Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, La Union, Pangasinan, Cagayan, Aurora, Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales, Cavite, Rizal, Occidental Mindoro, and Palawan.

 In addition, 24 “moderately vulnerable” areas are included. These are Davao City and the provinces of Davao, Bukidnon, Zamboanga Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga Sur, Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Mt Province, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Batangas, Laguna, Quezon, Romblon, Sorsogon, Aklan, Antique, Bohol, and Samar.

 The country’s weather bureau defines El Niño in these words: “large scale oceanographic/meteorological phenomenon that develops in the Pacific Ocean and is associated with extreme climatic variability (like) devastating rains, winds, droughts, etc.”

 Scientists claim that the oceans, especially the Pacific, exert a powerful effect on world climate through the sheer mass transport of heat and the evaporation of water.  The water vapor thus produced condenses to form storm clouds, releasing latent heat into the atmosphere in the process.

 This provides the atmosphere’s largest single heat source, and the higher the ocean temperature in a given location, the greater the production of water vapor, clouds and atmospheric heat.  The climate system’s complex internal linkages, only partly understood by scientists, determine how the clouds and heat are distributed around the world.

 El Niño starts when, through causes not well understood by scientists, prevailing easterly winds slacken at the equator, allowing a broad but subtle wave of warm water from the western Pacific to flow eastward toward South America.  El Niño is Spanish for “the boy” and refers to the Christ child, because periodic warming in the Pacific near South America is usually noticed around Christmas.

 Wikipedia shares this information: “Because El Niño’s warm pool feeds thunderstorms above, it creates increased rainfall across the east-central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The effects of El Niño in South America are direct and stronger than in North America. An El Niño is associated with warm and very wet summers (December-February) along the coasts of northern Peru and Ecuador, causing major flooding whenever the event is strong or extreme. The effects during the months of February, March and April may become critical. Along the west coast of South America, El Niño reduces the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that sustains large fish populations, which in turn sustain abundant sea birds, whose droppings support the fertilizer industry. This leads to fish kills offshore Peru.”

 El Niño is considered the number one force disturbing world climate patterns and yet no one exactly knew when El Niño first struck.  Historians are dating the phenomenon at least as far back as the early 1500s, when the Spanish conquistadores entered South America amid raging storms.  But there are even records of terrible sweeping through pre-Columbian communities 400 years before that.

 In a special report, Environmental News Network’s Hillary Mayell wrote: “El Niño has been around for thousands of years, but it’s taken a while to put the puzzle together.  We can only guess what earlier civilizations thought of the change of weather, and what gods they cursed for the drought, or lack of fish, or massive rains that wiped out their crops.”

 In past recent years, El Niño was believed to be a South American phenomenon, with no wider ramifications.  But recently, some researches have shown how a warming of the Pacific can change the world’s weather patterns.

 “There have been nine significant El Niño since World War II,” said Dr. Eugene M. Rasmusson, one of the world’s experts on the phenomenon, who worked at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  “They occur on average every four or five years, but irregularly – they can be two years apart, or as many as 10.”

 One of the most significant El Niño occurrences happened in 1982-83.  “This Niño was a maverick:  It behaved differently from recent predecessors,” recalled Dr. Rasmusson.  “That’s one reason we didn’t recognize it.  Another reason was a trick of nature. When it was first stirring in spring of 1982, the Mexican volcano El Chichon belched an immense volume of dust into the atmosphere.  The alien material misled our satellite sensors, thereby producing unreliable Pacific Ocean temperature readings.”

 When the said El Niño arrived, it was totally devastating.  “The pressure anomaly registered the strongest ever,” Dr. Rasmusson said.  “The trade winds faltered, and the equatorial current reversed direction across the entire Pacific.  Sea-surface temperatures rose as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, until a great tongue of warm water stretched 8,000 miles along the Equator. It was a historic Niño.”

 The said El Niño 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 the government estimates. 

 In the Philippines, the occurrence of El Niño has been characterized by drought events.  So far, there have been two El Niño events which greatly affected the country.  The 1982-1983 drought devastated Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, northern part of the Visayas and Western Mindanao.  The other one was the 1990-1992 droughts which brought about damages estimated at 4.1 billion pesos.

 The current El Niño may not be as destructive as the two previous events.  But even then, the agriculture department is not taking chances.  Its studies have shown it needs a budget of P2.58 billion to implement the alleviation program that include cloud seeding operations; installation of shallow tube wells, rain pumps and drip irrigation sytems; construction of small water-impounding projects; development of water springs; provision of hybrid seeds, farm implements and fertilizers to farmers; and the distribution of animal stocks, biologics and drugs for livestock growers.

 “Events such as Niños have no definite starting point and no end – it’s a matter of where you break into the scene, and when you leave it,” commented Dr. Jerome Namias, an American forecast specialist with the Scripss Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  “Perhaps the only thing more complex is human behavior itself.”