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Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts

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El Niño could cause more extreme weather events like droughts and flash floods. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts   

Climate experts have called on governments, businesses and communities to increase their awareness of the pending El Niño that is currently manifesting in the central Pacific Ocean.

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is one of the most important climate phenomena on Earth due to its ability to influence global atmospheric circulation. El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific – the ENSO.

Researchers across the globe have, through regular monitoring of the ENSO system, presented evidence that a moderate-to-strong El Niño is developing in 2023.

Prepare early for El Niño (Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts)

Speaking at the El Niño 2023 Summit held at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) senior researcher and ACCESS Director, Dr Neville Sweijd, emphasised the need for early preparation in anticipation of the potential impacts of the 2023 El Niño on the southern African region.

Professor Willem Landman from the University of Pretoria explained that while there is a well-understood relationship between ENSO and extreme weather in Southern Africa, this is not a straightforward relationship, and the extent of impacts vary greatly.

“However, most previous droughts in the summer rainfall regions of Southern Africa and seasons with a high frequency of heat waves days, are associated with El Niño events,” said Landman.

Sweijd added that published data indicate that global average sea surface temperatures have reached unprecedented levels in May and June this year and already, records for June air temperatures are being broken in the Northern Hemisphere. “This means that the El Niño is likely to be unusually strong,” Sweijd said.

Uncertain about possible impacts (Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts)

“Although we are certain that an El Niño is manifesting, we are uncertain about what impact it will have at this stage. In 2015 and 2016 the impact was severe and although we cannot at this stage predict that this season will be equally affected, we must pre-empt the potential impact.

“It is quite unpredictable by nature, but there is a general pattern that researchers in South Africa have been studying,” Sweijd explained.

While the changes in weather and climate are continuous, the concern is whether, in the long term under the influence of global warming, this type of event will occur more frequently, as climate models suggest.

Colleagues from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and the South African Weather Service (SAWS) showed how previous ENSO events affected the seasonal rainfall and temperature in the country and were able to demonstrate the impact of the 2015/16 El Niño on agricultural production, human health and food security, including the elevated cost of maize for human and animal consumption.

Looking at probable scenarios (Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts)

Dr Christien Engelbrecht from SAWS noted that the impact of elevated temperatures and heat waves vary across the summer months and are more prevalent in the central parts of the region while Drs Mokhele Moeletsi and Johan Malherbe (ARC) demonstrated that rainfall patterns and additional heat in past El Niño events have resulted in crop damage and require countries like South Africa, for example, to import maize from other parts of the world.

Dr Peter Johnston from the University of Cape Town explained how these impacts cascade into the food economy and are threatening to small-scale and commercial farmers.

The experts noted that one ameliorating factor is that the region has experienced good rains over the last few years and should this occur, it might dampen the impact of drought for irrigated farming.

Dr Katlego Ncongwane from SAWS noted that SAWS is developing a system for forecast products, which will be launched soon, and it will target various vulnerable sectors such as the agriculture and health sectors.

The gathering organised by the partners in the newly formed Extreme Climate Events Research Alliance was attended by stakeholders representing various government departments, tertiary institutions, industry, businesses and members of the scientific research community.

The main purpose was not to create alarm, but rather to create awareness in order for those who need to plan for the potential impacts can begin to consider what responses and contingencies are required.

Dechlan Pillay from the National Disaster Management Center presented the structures and policies that are in place, which are designed to intervene should the impacts of El Niño manifest later this year.

Sweijd stated that the team of experts assembled will reconvene for a follow-up session in early September 2023 when more information about this year’s El Niño event and when more data on the behaviour of the climate is available in the region as the spring season approaches.

Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts

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Southern Africa needs to prepare for El Niño says climate experts   

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