Ecuador gears up for El Nino mayhem

State of emergency in 17 provinces as experts warn this year's weather could be worst ever

QUITO • Ecuador has declared a 60-day state of emergency in its most vulnerable provinces as it braces itself for a season of destructive weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon.

President Rafael Correa said the measure would free up "necessary and indispensable" emergency relief in case of disasters caused by El Nino, the cyclical warming of the central Pacific Ocean.

Government data indicates that water levels along Ecuador's Pacific coast are abnormally high, which "puts infrastructure near the shoreline at risk", Mr Correa said.

The emergency is in effect in 17 of the country's 24 provinces.

El Nino causes a spike in extreme weather events such as floods and droughts every two to seven years. Scientists say that the current cycle is the most intense in more than 15 years and that this year has been the hottest by far.

UNCHARTED TERRITORY

Our scientific understanding of El Nino has increased greatly in recent years. However, this event is playing out in uncharted territory. Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change, the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometres of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere.

MR MICHEL JARRAUD, World Meteorological Organisation secretary-general

Last month was the hottest October in 136 years of data, according to US figures released on Wednesday, making it the eighth record-breaking month so far in this recordsetting year. 

This week the El Nino weather pattern started setting records of its own, with some of the warmest weekly temperatures ever seen across swathes of the equatorial Pacific. It has already spoilt cocoa harvests in Africa, triggered powerful typhoons and contributed to vast fires in Indonesia.

The effects are just getting started and this El Nino may carry on until May or June next year, says the US Climate Prediction Centre.

The heat that is dispersed into the atmosphere during an El Nino can linger, which means 2016 could be another record hot year worldwide. 

Every El Nino is unique, and this year is not yet considered the worst. By most measures, that title is held by the 1997-1998 cycle, which brought the highest sustained temperatures recorded over a three-month period. If current conditions persist, however, the 2015 cycle could exceed that.    

Last month was not just the hottest October on record - it was the biggest departure from normal for any month in the past 136 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Results from the world's top monitoring agencies vary slightly, but NOAA, the Japan Meteorological Agency and  Nasa all agree: October was brutal. 

The past few months have been so extreme that 2015 will go down as the hottest year on record even if November and December are unusually cool.

These new milestones follow the hottest summer on record, the hottest 12 months on record, the hottest calendar year on record (2014) and the hottest decade on record. 

There are a number of ways to gauge the strength of an El Nino. Most measures look at ocean surface temperatures over one of several wide regions in the equatorial Pacific over a three-month period.

Some methods also include atmospheric data. By all widely used measures, 2015 is on track to be among the top three El Nino years in records going back to 1950.

"Our scientific understanding of El Nino has increased greatly in recent years," World Meteorological Organisation secretary-general Michel Jarraud said this week.

"However, this event is playing out in uncharted territory. Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change, the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometres of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere."

Mr Correa caused controversy in August by declaring a state of emergency after a volcanic eruption that included "preventive censorship" of news reports not approved by the authorities.

The latest state of emergency does not include censorship measures.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'Ecuador gears up for El Nino mayhem'. Print Edition | Subscribe