Two researchers at Dartmouth College have published a report in the journal Science which predicts that the economic impact of the next El Niño weather event (expected to occur this year) will be $3 trillion through 2029, compared to the same period without such an event.
In a press release, the authors of the study says that in the years when El Niño occurs, a band of warm ocean water that spans from South America to Asia triggers far reaching weather changes which result in devastating floods, crop killing droughts, plummeting fish populations, and an uptick in tropical diseases. Here’s the abstract of the study:
“El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) shapes extreme weather globally, causing myriad socioeconomic impacts, but whether economies recover from ENSO events and how anthropogenic changes to ENSO will affect the global economy are unknown. Here we show that El Niño persistently reduces country-level economic growth, attributing $4.1T and $5.7T in global income losses to the 1982–83 and 1997–98 events, respectively.
“Increased ENSO amplitude and teleconnections from warming cause $84T in 21st-century economic losses in an emissions scenario consistent with current mitigation pledges, but these effects are shaped by stochastic variation in the sequence of El Niño and La Niña events. Our results highlight the sensitivity of the economy to climate variability independent of warming and the potential for future losses due to anthropogenic intensification of such variability.”
What Is El Niño?
Perhaps we should begin by defining the terms of this discussion. For that, we turn to Wikipedia, which informs us that El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific (approximately between the International Date Line and 120°W), including the area off the Pacific coast of South America. The ENSO is the cycle of warm and cold sea surface temperature (SST) of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean.
El Niño is accompanied by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern Pacific. El Niño phases are known to last close to four years; however, records demonstrate that the cycles have lasted between two and seven years. During the development of El Niño, rainfall develops between September and November. The cool phase of ENSO is La Niña, with SSTs in the eastern Pacific below average and air pressure high in the eastern Pacific and low in the western Pacific. The ENSO cycle, including both El Niño and La Niña, causes global changes in temperature and rainfall.
Developing countries that depend on their own agriculture and fishing, particularly those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are usually most affected. In this phase of the Oscillation, the pool of warm water in the Pacific near South America is often at its warmest around Christmas. The original phrase, “El Niño de Navidad,” arose centuries ago when Peruvian fishermen named the weather phenomenon after the newborn Christ.
The warming causes a shift in the atmospheric circulation, with rainfall becoming reduced over Indonesia, India, and northern Australia while rainfall and tropical cyclone formation increases over the tropical Pacific Ocean. The low-level surface trade winds, which normally blow from east to west along the equator, either weaken or start blowing from the other direction.
There is no consensus whether climate change will have any influence on the occurrence, strength, or duration of El Niño events, as research supports El Niño events becoming stronger, longer, shorter, and weaker. However, recent scholarship has found that climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme El Niño events.
[Author’s note: Finding accurate information on the internet today is a challenge. I support Wikipedia with a monthly donation of $5.00.]
El Niño influences weather across the world when it forms, potentially fueling more severe floods in places while worsening drought in others. In the US, it can trigger a wetter winter in the southern half of the country but more hot and dry weather farther north. Last week, a warning came from the World Meteorological Organization that this year’s El Niño, combined with climate change, could “push global temperatures into uncharted territory.”
The researchers found that El Niño tends to hold back economic growth for years after the event has passed. They analyzed the economic fallout from the 1982–1983 El Niño and discovered that it led to $4.1 trillion in global income loss over five years. Another El Niño that took place between 1997 and 1998 cost the world $5.7 trillion in income losses.
The stress of these events was felt unevenly across the world. The US saw its GDP dip by 3 percent even five years after each El Niño, compared to a scenario in which the weather pattern did not occur. Tropical countries including Peru and Indonesia that are more vulnerable to the effects of El Niño saw their GDPs fall by more than 10 percent.
There are already signals that the next El Niño could be particularly intense. The event is just one part of a recurring climate pattern that includes a cooler counterpart called La Niña. The world just emerged from a rare three-year-long La Niña period, which could influence El Niño and make it especially strong this year. On top of that, El Niño changes the flow of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, and sea surface temperatures have hit record highs.
“The deck is potentially stacked for a really big El Niño,” Callahan says. “Our results suggest that there will likely be a major economic toll that depresses economic growth in tropical countries for potentially up to a decade. In the tropics and places that experience the effects of El Niño, you get a persistent signature during which growth is delayed for at least five years. The aggregate price tag on these events has not ever been fully quantified. You have to add up all the depressed growth moving forward, not just when the event is happening.”
Mankin and Callahan project that global economic losses for the 21st century will amount to $84 trillion as climate change potentially amplifies the frequency and strength of El Niño — even if current pledges by world leaders to reduce carbon emissions come to fruition. “We can say with certainty that societies and economies absolutely do not just take a hit and recover,” Callahan said.
Notice that all this news concerns economics. That’s not to say that money isn’t important, but it masks the human toll of an overheating planet. It does not tell the story of humans who die from heat stress or starve because they have no food to eat. It does not reflect the unending misery of the Pakistanis who have lost their homes because of unprecedented flooding or the impact of raging forest fires on communities around the world.
We know less about the oceans that we do about the back side of the moon. We have only the most rudimentary understanding of the deep ocean currents that affect the majority of climate over the Earth’s land masses. We hear that since 1973, the oceans have absorbed the heat of nearly 25 BILLON Hiroshima atomic bombs, but don’t give that information a second thought. If it doesn’t affect our bank account, we don’t want to hear about it. No wonder capitalism has become the virus that distorts all human thinking.
These changes in the oceans take hundreds of years to manifest themselves and will take hundreds of years to be undone. In the meantime, we are focused on the next quarterly report. There is only one solution, and it is to stop burning fossil fuels, but that requires a vision that sees beyond the end of next week. In the contest between greed and a sustainable planet, the Earth doesn’t stand a chance.
Featured image courtesy of NOAA.
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