As we head toward winter, the good news for those who shiver at the thought of cold weather is that temperatures are likely to be warmer for people who live in the nation’s northern tier.
You can thank the cyclical weather pattern known as El Niño for that.
But for other parts of the planet, the forecast is not nearly so agreeable. For some regions, it might be disastrous. Increased rainfall is likely in South America and severe drought in Australia, Indonesia and parts of southern Asia. Already there has been deadly flooding in Peru and India, and in Australia, where it is spring, officials are warning of an especially dangerous fire season this summer.
And just this past week, Hurricane Otis slammed ashore on the southern Pacific Coast of Mexico as a Category 5 hurricane after explosively intensifying. El Niño may have played a role in that transformation over a scant 24 hours; the warmer sea surface temperatures associated with the weather pattern provide favorable conditions for hurricane development in the eastern Pacific.
The human toll of these El Niño repercussions is immense. It is also increasingly understood. As we enter another year of El Niño, one that could be “historically strong,” the challenge is on for rich nations to coordinate and deepen their assistance to developing countries before they face these foreseeable consequences.
El Niño’s warming builds on top of the already warmer average temperatures that come with climate change. This makes El Niño’s ancillary impacts — higher food prices, more infectious diseases, and even civil war — increasingly more likely, and dangerous. It also provides a warning sign of what is to come as climate change worsens. Our research suggests that this year’s El Niño could lead to events like crop failures that push up to 6.8 million children into severe hunger.
El Niño is a predictable phenomenon. We know how it generally works and how and where it tends to affect people and livelihoods. These forecasts can be used to help prevent damage to food systems, power supplies and, most important, human health. If we don’t learn to use these forecasts to target assistance and prepare for predictable weather and climate events, how will we ever confront the more unpredictable consequences of the changing climate?
El Niño occurs every few years and begins with a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects weather patterns across a vast swath of the planet. All of those areas generally experience higher than average temperatures and the majority see reduced rainfall, while a smaller proportion face increased rainfall.
These patterns then invert when the cool weather pattern known as La Niña takes hold. The last three years of La Niña conditions brought devastating drought to the Horn of Africa, worsening ongoing conflict in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. The current El Niño, in the meantime, has brought the same sort of heavy rains to Peru this year that are believed to have led more than 500 years ago to the worst known instance of child sacrifice, committed, archaeologists believe, to appease the gods.
In a recent study, we estimated El Niño’s impacts on child nutrition throughout the global tropics by assembling data on more than a million children spanning four decades and all developing country regions, a sample that represents about half of the more than 600 million children under the age of 5 globally. We found that warmer, drier El Niño conditions increase undernutrition in children across most of the tropics, where 20 percent of children are already deemed severely underweight by the World Health Organization. This condition leaves children with low weight for height and age and low height for age. That percentage ticks up by 2.9 percent for every degree of warming of the tropical Pacific during El Niño years, affecting millions of children.
The current El Niño is predicted to be severe — the average of forecasts predicts it peaking at the end of 2023 as sea surface temperatures hit just over two degrees Celsius above the average in a normal year. Our research suggests that this may result in between nearly 3.5 million and 6.8 million children becoming undernourished; the much smaller number who may benefit from increased precipitation is around 850,000.
This means the 2023 El Niño could erase a full year of progress in the United Nations’ work to meet its goal of eliminating undernutrition by 2030. And we’ve seen this before: In the case of the recent historically strong 2015 El Niño, the number of children at or below the W.H.O. threshold for being severely underweight jumped by nearly 6 percent — or an additional nearly six million children driven into hunger, having a lasting impact on their health even if their weight recuperates. To offset the impacts of the 2015 El Niño would have required providing 134 million children with micronutrient supplements or 72 million food-insecure children with food, our study finds.
We should apply the lessons of the 2015 El Niño to today. Rich nations and organizations like the United Nations can coordinate humanitarian aid on the ground before the crisis hits, and can target this aid with increasing precision. We know where El Niño generally brings more rain and more drought conditions up to six months ahead of time. Now we need to use this information to prevent millions of children from experiencing extreme hunger that will physically and cognitively scar them for the rest of their lives.
A few countries, including Brazil, Indonesia and Australia, do use El Niño forecasts to prepare for flooding, wildfires and agricultural damage. And the World Food Program monitors El Niño conditions, and has called for action to be taken in response to such forecasts.
But the fact that so many children are hurt by a predictable climate phenomenon suggests that the threats from El Niños are not being addressed adequately. Doing so will require a big shift in how the international community thinks about the potential havoc these weather patterns can cause and how to prepare for them. More resources and better coordination will be required among international aid organizations and governments to confront not only this El Niño and future ones but also the worsening climate crisis.
As the international community convenes on what to do about climate change in Dubai this November, El Niño is both a warning sign and a chance to learn how to respond quickly to climate extremes. Millions of children depend on us getting it right now; millions more depend on us learning to get it right for the future.
Amir Jina is an EPIC scholar and assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Jesse Anttila-Hughes is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco. Gordon McCord is an associate teaching professor at the University of California, San Diego, School of Global Policy and Strategy.