El Nino may make comeback this year

Climate models show warming of Pacific Ocean in coming months

HONG KONG • Less than a year after the world said goodbye to one of the strongest El Ninos on record, forecasters say the weather pattern may make a comeback.

Climate models indicate that the central Pacific Ocean will probably warm over the coming months, suggesting that neutral conditions or El Nino may be the most likely scenarios for the Southern Hemisphere winter-spring period, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said on its website. Five models show El Nino thresholds may be reached by mid-to-late winter, it added. Australia's winter starts in June.

The 2015-16 El Nino, aggravated by climate change, was the strongest since the record event of 1997-98. The pattern reduced rainfall in the Indian monsoon, parched farmlands, and curbed production of cocoa in the Ivory Coast, rice in Thailand and coffee in Indonesia.

Some 5.6 million people are facing food shortages in Ethiopia, which was hard hit by drought induced by last year's El Nino.

India's Skymet Weather Services last week said El Nino showed signs of resurfacing in the coming months.

The El Nino-Southern Oscillation (Enso) is set to remain neutral through summer and autumn, said the Australian weather bureau.

  • 5.6m 
    ​Number of people facing food shortages in Ethiopia, which was hard hit by drought induced by last year's El Nino.

Model outlooks that span the Southern Hemisphere autumn tend to have lower accuracy and forecasts beyond May should be used with some caution, it said.

El Nino is one phase in the larger three-part Enso cycle. It represents the warm phase. La Nina is when the equatorial Pacific cools, and Enso Neutral is in-between.

The US Climate Prediction Centre last November said a weak La Nina had started.

The likelihood of an El Nino comeback this year is bad news for the world's coral reefs.

Sixteen years after the 1998 El Nino ravaged corals in the Indian Ocean's Seychelles archipelago, no reefs have recovered their original growth rates and barely a third are expanding at all, researchers reported last week in a study, the first to track coral health over two decades.

Of 21 reefs tracked from 1994, a dozen were still struggling in 2014 against leafy algae, sea urchins and parrot fish to restore their original balance of shallow-water flora and fauna, the study has found.

The rest underwent what marine biologists call a "regime shift", and are today composed of a new - and far less diverse - mix of corals.

"At any given site, there were at least 35 types of coral" in 1994, said the study's lead author Fraser Januchowski-Hartley, a researcher from the University of Exeter. "Today, we see five to 10."

Four of the reefs had only 2 per cent coral cover in 2014, and are likely to die out entirely.

Covering 1 per cent of the ocean's area but home to a quarter of its biodiversity, coral reefs are hugely important as incubators and habitats for thousands of marine species, and are vital to the livelihoods of half a billion people around the world.

With barely 1 deg C of man-made warming so far, corals have already been devastated by rapidly warming waters that cause them to turn white. The United Nations estimates that a third of coral reefs worldwide have already been destroyed, with Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives hit particularly hard.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2017, with the headline 'El Nino may make comeback this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe