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Here comes El Niño – and experts warn South Africa to ‘be prepared for the worst’

Here comes El Niño – and experts warn South Africa to ‘be prepared for the worst’

El Niño is here and experts are urging South Africans across sectors to prepare for droughts and heatwaves – even if they don’t materialise.

As the winter chill relinquishes its grip on South Africa, the nation is bracing for an enigmatic weather phenomenon that has the potential to disrupt the delicate balance of its ecosystems and communities: El Niño. 

The phenomenon is no stranger to South Africa, and its cyclical arrival has been documented for decades. While this naturally occurring climate cycle, characterised by the warming of ocean waters in the equatorial Pacific, has long been anticipated and forecast, its impacts remain a complex riddle for meteorologists and climatologists alike. Accordingly, the projected and likely outcomes of this year’s El Niño are both a source of concern and curiosity.

In separate interviews with Daily Maverick, Dr Neville Sweijd, director at the Alliance for Collaboration on Climate & Earth Systems Science (Access)  and a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, as well as Dr Ramontsheng Rapolaki, an expert in agrometeorology and climate modelling with the Agricultural Research Centre, shared more details. 

Sweijd explained that the links between specific impacts and El Niño are not simple to predict. 

Read more on Daily Maverick: As El Niño looms, South Africa – including the southwest – looks set for a wet winter

“We can only really see El Niño impacts when our summer rainfall comes… in general, there’s a relationship between the state of the ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) and the South African climate. In general, there’s an established relationship, but it’s kind of statistical because it’s not always a linear relationship. It’s more like, when we have El Niño, ‘this is the historical pattern and general likelihood of an impact’.” 

Rapolaki noted that “the nature of extreme weather impacts varies due to the complex interaction between the El Niño event and other regional atmospheric circulation systems. These systems can either intensify or weaken the effects of El Niño over our region. 

The climate risk for a full-impact El Niño is a failure of the summer rainfall.

“At this stage, we can only anticipate the occurrence of El Niño events, but we cannot precisely predict their exact impacts. As a result, expecting El Niño does not guarantee the occurrence of severe drought conditions, given the complex nature of ocean-atmospheric circulation at play.”

But what indications do we have of any impact El Niño is having right now?

Sweijd suggested we look to our neighbours in the northern hemisphere for clues. 

“We’ve seen these record temperatures in the northern hemisphere, which were kind of predicted. That doesn’t automatically mean we will see the same thing in the southern hemisphere summer… these record temperatures in the northern hemisphere are a combination of things. There is a general warming trend that’s taking place and then you’re adding an extreme on top of that. On average, if you’re starting with a temperature increase, and you add two more degrees to that, then you’re gonna hit a record.” 

Read more on Daily Maverick: Hot, hot July 2023 set to be hottest month in recorded history — almost certainly caused by humans burning fossil fuels

Asked what some of the risks associated with El Niño in South Africa are, Sweijd identified the risk to the summer rains.

“The climate risk for a full-impact El Niño is a failure of the summer rainfall… so it’s drought. In 2015, we had extreme drought in the north of the country and in KwaZulu-Natal. However, what’s different about this year is that we have just come off the back of three La Niña years. La Niña does the opposite. It results in above-average rainfall in the summer rainfall period. 

“So, the difference is that if the summer rainfalls fail, this year, there is a reserve. It’s hard to know, but that’s just the water. And so, assuming that water is available and is properly distributed, and managed, and so on and so forth, then it could offset the impact of an extreme drought should that happen.” 

Rapolaki concurred: “In general, El Niño events tend to bring drier-than-usual conditions in South Africa, particularly over the summer rainfall region. However, it is important to note that this relationship is not always straightforward. While several El Niño events coincide with dry conditions, not every occurrence leads to severe droughts.” 

Read more on Daily Maverick: Western Cape: Rainfall this year is breaking records in SA’s ‘most disaster-prone’ province

But rainfall and the lack thereof isn’t the only concern to be cognisant of, Sweijd explained. Extreme heat is another serious concern. 

“If we follow the same patterns as we have seen in the northern hemisphere, and we get these extended heatwaves, the impacts of those can be enormous on all sorts of things on crops, on fire risk, on animals, livestock, on people’s health, on disease,” he said. 

“Temperature and rainfall are both things to worry about. Both together and independently.” 

What to do

Rapolaki echoed these sentiments, cautioning that extreme heat and the potential impact of El Niño on public health are serious concerns. “Extreme weather events associated with El Niño, such as extreme heat events, can significantly affect people’s health, leading to heat-related illnesses, for instance.”

Asked what is most important for South Africans to be aware of, Sweijd emphasised the need to be prepared.

“Be prepared for the worst and let’s rather be graciously incorrect about our prediction. We’d rather have people think about what they should be doing to prepare for a dry, hot summer than have them not prepared in case it does happen. So this is all the sectors that matter, agriculture, health, transport, housing – all of it.”

“I guess the question is what we need to do to adapt. To adapt both to this potential threat of El Niño but also to the longer term changes.” DM

 

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  • Raymond Auerbach says:

    When I arrived in the Western Cape to take up my appointment as Professor of Soil Science and Plant Production at Nelson Mandela University’s George Campus, the 2008-2010 drought was just breaking. We had torrential rains for a month. In my first public talk in George, I pointed out the cyclical nature of drought: “In 2017-18”, I said, “we will have another drought, and we will not be ready for it; in 2024-25 we will have the really big drought – will we be ready for that one?” By 2017, the plans to raise the wall of the Garden Route Dam, and to reduce leakage had still not been implemented when the dry weather arrived; now, thank goodness, they are a reality, and thanks to the good rains our dam is full! Given these good rains, the coming summer (as mentioned above) will probably be easy to survive, but are we ready for the following summer? I have just put in my fifth rainwater tank and we have mulched the whole garden and bought a swimming pool blanket. Our solar panels and solar geyser provide us with most of our energy. We can do a lot to prepare for drought in the next year; we have been warned!

  • Agf Agf says:

    Oh dear, more fear mongering from the doomsday brigade.

    • Hilary Morris says:

      or sage advice from those in the know?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      And more and more bullshit from the oil and gas cabal? Believe it, china, it’s happening whether you or your brethren think otherwise. Come to the Cape next year or the year after, when Day Zero is almost upon us again, like in 2018 after four years of the boy child, and try to tell us the same nonsense then.

    • Johann Olivier says:

      Oh dear. More deliberate blindness from those who do not believe in science, or empirical evidence.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    Oh look warnings about the health risks of heat. And absolute silence on the fact that historically cold kills 10 times as many people.

  • Luan Nel says:

    Why have we not been seeing desalination plants popping up like mushrooms in the Western Cape? (as was the plan)

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