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UN agency declares El Niño has begun, warns of soaring temperatures, extreme weather events

UN agency declares El Niño has begun, warns of soaring temperatures, extreme weather events

The UN’s World Meteorological Organisation said on Tuesday that El Niño is now under way, warning governments to prepare for the looming economic, social and ecological consequences.

The World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO’s) declaration comes against the backdrop of already blistering temperatures worldwide and things are seen heating up from here. This is not good news for South Africa as El Niño typically brings drought to this region – its 2014-2016 incarnation blazed a path of economic and social misery.



“El Niño conditions have developed in the tropical Pacific for the first time in seven years, setting the stage for a likely surge in global temperatures and disruptive weather and climate patterns,” the Geneva-based WMO said in a statement.

This follows the US National Weather Service’s announcement last month that the pattern had set in, but it described the conditions as “weak” and meteorological organisations vary in their assessments of weather events.

Read more in Daily Maverick: El Niño has finally arrived – US National Weather Service

It seems that El Niño, triggered by a warming of surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific, is now fully up and running. And the WMO declaration comes with a flashing red light.

“The onset of El Niño will greatly increase the likelihood of breaking temperature records and triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and the ocean,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas was quoted as saying.

“The declaration of an El Niño by the WMO is the signal to governments around the world to mobilise preparations to limit the impacts on our health, our ecosystems and our economies.

“Early warnings and anticipatory action of extreme weather events associated with this major climate phenomenon are vital to saving lives and livelihoods.”

The WMO forecasts there is a 90% probability of El Niño extending into the second half of 2023. It typically lasts nine to 12 months.

The biggest impacts are likely to be felt in 2024, possibly coinciding with the latter part of South Africa’s summer grain growing season – and the general election season.

The WMO said that “2016 is the warmest year on record because of the ‘double whammy’ of a very powerful El Niño event and human-induced warming from greenhouse gases. The effect on global temperatures usually plays out in the year after its development and so will likely be most apparent in 2024.”

The UN agency said in a report in May, as El Niño lay on the horizon, there was a 98% chance that at least one of the next five years, and the next five-year period overall, will be the warmest on record. 

This year has already been a scorcher as El Niño’s opposite, La Niña, faded, with record sea surface temperatures and 40% of the world’s ocean surfaces currently experiencing heatwave conditions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Global ocean roiled by marine heatwaves, with more on the way – NOAA Research

For South Africa, the outlook is potentially grim. A brutal cost-of-living crisis is taking a heavy toll on poor households, but there are signs that food inflation – fuelled in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – has peaked after reaching a 14-year high of 14.4% in March.

The situation would have been far worse were it not for a string of bumper harvests aided by La Niña-inspired rains.

Soaring temperatures or a protracted drought would bode ill for crucial crops such as maize, and reignite food inflation, heaping fresh hardship on the impoverished majority. Livestock herds will also potentially be at risk, threatening a key asset of poor rural households, while dam levels could plunge, with dire consequences for water supplies. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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