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May 27th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 21
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Here comes El Nino
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Herald contributor photo
Powerline tower toppled in Quebe Ice Storm '98"
It was reported recently by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology that El Nino thresholds have been reached in the tropical Pacific for the first time in five years. This can be good or bad news depending on where you are in the world but one thing is for sure. If this phenomenon continues to build in strength into next fall we are in for some very different weather.
The first time I ever studied this story of weather reversal was in 1997 and I thought I might share what I dug up at that time on the subject.
It was written at the end of November in 1997 and at that time Fernie had still not seen one centimeter of snow. The year before was extraordinary with over five feet by Christmas and another six fell by year’s end. By the time spring came around in 1996 Fernie had had over 13 feet of snow and given what had happened in 1995 (aka big flood) , everyone was really worried about the potential of another. It was, mercifully, a normal melt off that spring. So here’s what I had to say eighteen years ago about the southern oscillation:
This milding out of the weather is due in most part to "the Christ child" which is the Spanish translation of the much bandied about term these days, namely El Nino. The term El Nino dates back to 19th century Peru where sailors noticed that every few years around Christmas time their coastal waters warmed up and flowed southwards down the coastline instead of northwards.
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Offshore Peruvian fishermen have been reaping a wonderful harvest for many years. The fish are there because of an abundance of nutrients. The nutrients are there because of the trade winds. It works like this. The trade winds blow northwest and move war surface waters offshore. This draws colder water up from far below and with it the nutrients that have settled towards the ocean floor. The fish are happy and so are the fishermen. This phenomenon is common to the west coasts of all continents but is most pronounced at offshore Peru. It also makes for a very dry coastline such as that of California.
But (and this is a big but) every 2 to 10 years this upwelling of nutrients is replaced by warm water coming from the north. The culprit for this reversal is of course El Nino doing its thing. The results are usually pretty disastrous there. Fish begin to die or migrate as do millions of seabirds that feed on them. The death toll can apparently be so great sometimes that the hydrogen sulfide released from decaying fish and birds combines with sea fog and literally blackens boats and even cars and houses on shore.
The impact is not restricted to offshore there. In the now infamous 1982/83 El Nino, coastal areas of Ecuador and Peru endured in some cases 300 times normal annual rainfall. Adobe dwellings by the tens of thousands literally dissolved in the rain, avalanches and wild running rivers isolated villages and over 300 people died.
The whole El Nino upheaval in weather patterns is a direct result of a trade wind shift. Normally the trade winds blow north and westward and cause warm equatorial surface waters to accumulate in the western Pacific. This phenomenon has been likened to blowing on a cup of hot coffee, where the surface liquid pushes up against the opposite side of the cup. Moist air rises above this warm tropical water and results in the downpours that nourish Indonesia and bring monsoons to India. This is the normal play of meteorological events that gives Australia, the Philippines, the mid-Pacific and parts of East Asia their normal weather. If these equatorial trade winds reverse direction and blow from west to east things tend to get meteor-illogical.
To date the 1982/83 reversal has been the absolute worst in recent history. Indonesia endured a devastating drought where millions faced famine. Australia suffered heat waves and drought. Farmland there turned to desert, dust storms were everywhere and bone dry bush caught fire killing 72 people and causing 3 billion dollars in damage. Even Southern Africa was affected with the worst dry spell in history. India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Hawaii and Mexico all suffered severe droughts.
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Halfway around the world in North and South America the reversal effects were just as devastating. In December of '82 California took a terrible pounding. Houses and piers were destroyed by high surf and crops were smothered inland. A freak tornado ripped through downtown Los Angeles. Damage to the Pacific states was over 1 billion dollars. Even the Gulf Coast was affected, suffering floods that displaced 60,000 people and killed 50.
So guess what happened last June? The trade winds reversed themselves. Right now there is a pool of warm water 180 meters deep and bigger that the whole United States that is heading eastward towards South America. It has caused the easterly jet stream to flow farther south steering winter storms across central California and the southern United States. Across the Pacific from us the affects of El Nino are already being felt. Parts of Australia are rationing water and last week Canberra reported the highest daytime temperature in about 70 years. There are more than 300 bush fires burning out of control. North of them the Indonesian farmers have made a serious mistake with their destructive slash and burn farming techniques. There are no tropical storms to halt this archaic, reckless process.
Back on our side of the Pacific, Acapulco Mexico was hit by Hurricane Pauline recently which took the lives of 160 unsuspecting Mexicans.
The scary thing about all this is that El Nino is just getting started.
For us way up here in little old Fernie El Nino spells much less disastrous effects. A mild winter with lower that average snowfall will be our fare. I remember well the winter of 82/83 here. How could I ever forget finding pansies still alive against my back fence in early January.
I just watched a news clip or some guy sea-dooing on a lake at 100 Mile House! Last year he said he had been ski-dooing on the same lake for 3 weeks already. Geez, is this El Nino thing crazy or what?
Author’s Note: So the winter of 1997-1998 turned out to be a record breaking El Nino event with flooding in California and tornadoes in Florida. It was the second warmest and seventh wettest since 1895. Severe weather everywhere.
I found a McGill technical paper on the Quebec ice storm of January 1998 that suggests the El Nino was partially responsible for what has been the costliest natural disaster to occur in Canada’s history. Ice Storm ’98 caused $6.4 billion Cdn in property damage and economic losses and left 4.7 million people without power or heat right in the middle of winter.
Given the present state of affairs in California (drought state of emergency declared in January) El Nino just might bring some relief there. Or it might go the other way and tear up the place. This would reduce their agricultural output, create food-price inflation and we will pay $5 for a head of lettuce!
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