Friday, March 30, 2012

Could a Shift to El Nino Worsen the Sahel Crisis in 2012?

An important shift in short term climate patterns is underway. The strong La Nina that over the past two years contributed to massive flooding in Australia, a food crisis in the Pacific Islands, and the catastrophic Horn of Africa drought is finally subsiding.
There may be indicators that the shift from La Nina to “ENSO Neutral” to El Nino conditions is possible by year’s end. Just last week, parts of the Hawaiian Islands endured nearly 35 inches of rain, landslides, and tornadoes – prompting meteorologist Henry Margusity to suggest “What is going on in Hawaii is a symptom of the change from La Niña to El Niño coming on.”
For the potentially cataclysmic food shortage in Africa’s Sahel, this may have major implications. Unlike, say, Australasia and the Horn of Africa, La Nina and El Nino’s influence on the Sahel is more nebulous. However, scientific consensus is that it does play some sort of role. Generally speaking, at the beginning of La Nina cycles, the Sahel and West Africa tend to be wetter. We are far from that scenario now as La Nina is in a weakening mode. Some research points to certain months in El Nino patterns favoring hotter, drier conditions in the Sahel. Other evidence points to warming tropical Atlantic waters near equatorial Africa as the major driver of hot, drought-inducing conditions across the region. Although complex, there is little evidence to suggest that El Nino would be a help to the crisis, and more indications that it would play a more nefarious role.
Last week, Oxfam International launched a bold appeal for the Sahel emergency. "Drought, high food prices, entrenched poverty and regional conflict" are cited as factors cited in exacerbating this cross-border complex emergency.  As the appeal was launched, Oxfam Regional Director for West Africa, Mamadou Biteye, cautioned the international community for its complacency. In the coming months, if the current La Nina becomes an El Nino that further exacerbates drought in the Sahel, any lingering complacency may quickly transform to a sense of rapidly escalating catastrophe.
 Written by Mehmet

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