The El Nino weather patten that would likely push back Hong Kong's typhoon season and bring more rain to the region is now 90 per cent likely to arrive this year, according to fresh weather forecasts.
El Nino begins as a giant pool of warm water swelling in the eastern tropical Pacific that sets off a chain reaction of weather events around the world, causing global famines, floods and even wars.
Hong Kong Observatory said last month that the weather anomaly could distort the territory's weather by delaying the arrival of typhoons as well as increasing rainfall in the winter and spring.
However while storms in the northwestern Pacific are likely to be stronger, there is no indication that those hitting Hong Kong will be more intense, said Observatory senior scientific officer Lee Sai-ming, adding that there was still a lot of uncertainty about the strength of the increasingly-likely El Nino.
India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains undermining the nation’s fragile food supply, followed by further scorching droughts in Australia and collapsing fisheries off South America. But some regions could benefit, in particular the US, where El Nino is seen as the “great wet hope”, bringing rains that could break the searing drought in the west.
The knock-on effects can impact even more widely, from cutting global gold prices to making England’s World Cup footballers sweat a little more.
The latest prediction is from the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, which is considered one the most reliable of the 15 or so prediction centres around the world.
“It is very much odds-on for an event,” said Tim Stockdale, principal scientist at the centre, who said 90 per cent of their scenarios deliver an El Nino. “The amount of warm water in the Pacific is now significant, perhaps the biggest since the 1997-98 event.”
That El Nino was the biggest in a century, producing the hottest year on record at the time and major global impacts, including a mass die-off of corals.
“But what is very much unknowable at this stage is whether this year’s El Nino will be a small event, a moderate event - that’s most likely - or a really major event,” said Stockdale, adding the picture will become clearer in the next month or two. “It is which way the winds blow that determines what happens next and there is always a random element to the winds.”
The movement of hot, rain-bringing water to the eastern Pacific ramps up the risk of downpours in nations flanking that side of the great ocean, while the normally damp western flank dries out. Governments, commodity traders, insurers and aid groups such as the Red Cross and World Food Programme all monitor developments closely. Water conservation and food stockpiling is already underway in some countries.
Professor Axel Timmermann, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, argues that a major El Nino is more likely than not because of the specific pattern of winds and warm water being seen in the Pacific: “In the past, such alignments have always triggered strong El Nino events.”
El Nino events occur every five years or so, peaking in December and the first, and potentially greatest, human impacts are felt in India. The reliance of its 1 billion-strong population on the monsoon, which usually sweeps up over the southern tip of the sub-continent around June 1, has led its monitoring to be dubbed “the most important weather forecast in the world”. This year, it is has got off to a delayed start, with the first week’s rains 40 per cent below average. “El Nino could be quite devastating for agriculture and the water supply in India,” said Dr Nick Klingaman, an El Nino expert at the University of Reading.
Research last month showed the global impact of El Nino events on food supplies, with corn, rice and wheat yield much lower than normal, though soybean harvests tend to rise. While food production has improved in the last year, El Nino could reverse that trend, according to Leo Abruzzese, global forecasting director for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It may reduce agricultural output over the next few years, which could weigh on global food security”. Drought linked to the 2007 El Nino led to a surge in food prices in 2008 that sparked riots in countries as far afield as Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti.
After India, El Nino’s impacts roll east and officials in Cebu, the Philippines’ second city, have urged all households to save water to reduce the impact of the drier weather due by the end June. In Malaysia, the national water authority is preparing for a dry spell of up to 18 months.
The hot, dry skies will then track to Australia, where last year was its hottest year. Andrew Watkins, manager of climate prediction services at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, said: “El Nino is one of the largest influences on Australia’s climate.”
However, in the US, El Nino holds out the prospect of relief for the western states and nowhere is more desperate for rain than California. The entire state is in severe or extreme drought, after receiving barely a quarter of its annual rainfall, and communities have been under water rations since March, ordinarily still the rainy season. A strong El Nino would bring rain, typically double the annual average in southern California.
“I commonly refer to El Nino as the great wet hope,” said Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “Everyone in the west has their fingers crossed because we are bone dry.” However, big El Ninos like the 1997-98 event - what Patzert calls “Godzillas”- are rare and forecasters at the US government’s climate prediction centre said on June 5 that time was running out for a significant El Nino to be set in train.