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El Niño and Climate change: All you need to know

A super El Niño weather system is causing extreme weather in many parts of the world, including drought and flooding. The poorest and most vulnerable people are being hit hardest, leaving millions facing water shortages, hunger and disease this year. Here are some of the most common questions on the links between El Niño and climate change and how it is affecting millions of people around the world.

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a natural climate phenomenon that occurs every few years. It happens due to a heating up of the surface of the tropical Pacific Ocean that causes changes to ocean currents and wind patterns, which creates a release of heat into the atmosphere. These have a strong influence on global weather patterns. The current El Niño will be over in early 2016 but the effects will be felt long after.

How is El Niño linked to climate change?

Evidence suggests that the cause-effect relationship between El Niño and climate change is likely to be a reciprocal one: while climate change boosts the probability of a ‘super’ El Niño developing, El Niño, in turn, exacerbates climate change by releasing a large amount of heat from the Pacific Ocean. As the seas heat up due to climate change, the chances of a ‘super’ El Nino occurring are likely to double.

What are the effects of El Niño?

We estimate that this year, El Niño could leave tens of millions of people facing hunger, water shortages and disease. The effects of El Niño have been felt in much of Africa, and parts of Central America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific.  

Millions of people are also at risk from flooding. Flooding has already devastated Paraguay and further floods are expected in South America in February-March.

El Nino is (almost) over now – so what is the problem?

El Nino will finish around March, but the humanitarian impact will last much longer.

In Southern Africa for example, unpredictable rainfall and dry spells are expected to reduce harvests across the region and by 25% in South Africa alone. Low harvests in 2016 will have impacts well into 2017.

The humanitarian impact will last for many more months (precise dates depend on the growing season in the country). And if a La Niña weather system follows this El Niño (experts say that there is a 40 per cent chance), then the impact could continue for years.  

Will the climate deal achieved in Paris help to improve governments’ response to climate phenomena like El Niño?

The UN climate deal reached in Paris in December 2015 saw world leaders agree to scale up their financial commitments to support the most vulnerable people adapt to climate change – by 2020.

However, more needs to be done now – urgent humanitarian response is required in some countries including the delivery of food aid, or financial support, ensuring people have access to clean water and sanitation and treating people who are suffering from malnutrition.

In the long term, all governments will need to do more, and rich countries must take the lead in ending their use of fossil fuels to address the root causes of climate change.

What burden does climate change put on Oxfam’s work?

Year after year, Oxfam is seeing people impoverished by disasters from natural hazards, and families and communities forced to make the toughest decisions about the food they grow or buy.  

That is why climate change is one of the cornerstones of our campaigning to fix the broken food system.

Stop climate change making people hungry

 

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