Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Batten Down the Hatches: Double El Niño is Trouble for Public Health

Since January I've been seeing articles about a second El Niño forming in the Pacific, expected to bring buckets of rain to the U.S. west coast this winter. The historic drought we're having here in California makes this sound like a godsend. I only hear the coming deluge discussed in positive terms. Or a marketing opportunity: a friend moving out of the area just posted her rain boots for sale with the tag "El Niño is coming!"

Obviously natural disasters like immense storms and floods pose a direct physical threat to people and their homes. For a risk-minded person, an image like this might come to mind at the mention of the upcoming intense El Niño:

Source: U.S. Navy. Hurricane Katrina rescue.
But there are less obvious dangers from the oncoming Double El Niño that should be included in risk calculations. First, let's remind ourselves the defining characteristics of this phenomenon.

El Niño is just a rainy winter, right?

El Niño is when the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean water gets warmer and air pressure gets lower, part of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which alternates with La Niña (when the eastern equatorial Pacific waters cool and air pressure gets higher). Usually, as the water warms more moisture goes into the atmosphere and creates more storms. So, the primary impact associated with El Niño in the U.S. is more storms on the west coast.

An El Niño was declared in 2014, but the warm water/more storms connection turned out to be weak. The energy from the warm water is just "sitting there," according to Kevin Trenberth of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a March 2015 "Living on Earth" piece from PRI.

The NOAA Climate Prediction Center declared in July:
There is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, and around an 80% chance it will last into early spring 2016.
Trenberth said in the PRI piece of the pending Double El Niño: "this could mean more than a few months of odd weather, but instead usher in a new phase of climate change."

Perhaps as a result of the congestion from not releasing the energy from the 2014 warming cycle, current sea surface temperatures indicate an El Niño as strong as the record-breaking one in 1997-1998. However, NOAA meteorologist, Michelle L’Heureux, points out that the two El Niño's early indicators don't line up exactly ("Keep calm and stop obsessing over weekly changes in ENSO" - July 7, 2015), and in a July 23 Scientific American article she is quoted as saying "we cannot find a single El Niño event that tracked like another El Niño event."

But even if this El Niño doesn't live up to the hype, meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote last October "a longer-term climate signal is beginning to point in the direction of more frequent bursts of warming over the next several years."

On top of that, a parallel system, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), is warming the northeastern Pacific. (Look at the bottom of this University of Washington chart of sea surface temperature anomalies in the North Pacific and it looks like the PDO is in full swing.)

Will California be Singing in the Rain?

Who knows? No two El Niños are the same, as pointed out by meteorologist Michelle L’Heureux above. 

We might have yet another dry winter because of "the Blob": a warm water/high pressure ridge combination lingering off the coast of California blocking incoming storms. (For more info read El Niño vs. the Blob: which will win out this winter? - from the KPCC science desk, Aug. 10, 2015, including a 1:22 animation explaining their different effects.)

Then there is the salient point that "El Niño rains can come like a wrecking ball," brought up in a July 30, 2015, opinion piece by one climate change adaptation planner, AECOM's Josh Sawislak. He questions the readiness of the state's infrastructure if the predicted floods do come.

While California hopes for and dreads a winter of floods, other places will have to brace for drought and fire. In the southwest Pacific, they await dry conditions. East Australia is expecting dangerous bushfire conditions (check out this Sydney Morning Herald article from May 2015 describing expected El Niño impacts in Australia this winter, with a bonus 2-minute cartoon explaining the phenomenon).

Beyond the direct public safety risks from wildfire and flood, why should people worry about El Niño's impact on public health?

El Niño and Disease

Drought and Meningitis

Historically, a strong El Niño has brought drought and famine to the Sahel region of Africa, and researchers are now drawing connections between the weather pattern and specific diseases. In July 2015, a Nigerian doctor O. Oluwole published findings correlating the increase of meningococcal meningitis epidemics in the Sahel with strong El Niños. This supports previous findings that high dust and wind (which accompany drought) correlate with meningitis outbreaks in the so-called "meningitis belt" (stretching across the Sahel from Senegal to Ethiopia) where "major epidemics of lethal meningitis are routine" (The Guardian, March 25, 2014). With these findings, vaccination campaigns can be stepped up in preparation.

Floods and Stunted Growth

In November 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins published findings showing that children born during and shortly after the 1997-1998 El Niño event in Northern Peru, which brought heavy coastal flooding, were "on average shorter and had less lean mass for their age and sex than expected had El Niño not occurred."

The study's lead researcher, William Checkley told Mother Jones magazine that the findings align with previous findings about El Niño's public health consequences: increased risk of infection, social and emotional stress, and increased risk of contracting infectious diarrheal and respiratory diseases from flooding and heat. All of this combined could easily harm a child's development.

El Niño and War

Solomon Hsiang, an economist who studies the impact of climate change on conflict, together with  K. Meng and M. Cane, found "the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years" according to data from 1950 to 2004 (Nature, 2011). Another researcher who looks at the connection of weather and conflict, Marshall Burke, suggested that the findings could lead to governments of countries with high risk of extreme heat or drought during El Niño "putt[ing] in place measures and safety nets to try to reduce the risk of conflict in that year." Or, the approach of El Niño could at least put international rescue and refugee organizations on notice to step up their fundraising efforts in advance.

All I can say is batten down the hatches.

More information:
This October 2012 Daily Mail UK piece shows historical global distribution of flood damage from El Niño, using maps from the Global Change Institute in Amsterdam.

El Niño and "the Blob" are both visible in the Pacific if you look at the anomalies map-- the second map down. 

With a link to the ENSO Blog.

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