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The El Niño climate phenomenon: Its global significance and impact on Ecuador

Introduction

Climate phenomena are events that can become extreme and condition our daily activities. The consequences of their variations in temperature, precipitation, wind velocity, or the occurrence of extreme events, are present throughout our lives and have an impact on health, the economy, agriculture, and even human migrations. It is in this scenario that El Niño, a natural phenomenon known for its impact, arises. This climatic event, with its variations in the temperatures of the Pacific Ocean, not only exerts a particular influence on weather conditions but also triggers a cascade of chain reactions that extend across continents. To ignore the influence of these natural phenomena would be to close our eyes to a powerful factor that shapes the course of society. Our ability to thrive and create a sustainable future depends on our understanding and effective response to the processes taking place on our planet.


What is El Niño?

El Niño is part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is an interconnected ocean-atmosphere phenomenon characterized by variations in the temperature of waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The ENSO pattern in the tropical Pacific can appear in one of three states: El Niño, Neutral, or La Niña. El Niño (the warm phase) and La Niña (the cool phase), shown in Figure 1, cause significant deviations from the average ocean temperatures, winds, surface pressure, and rainfall in certain areas of the tropical Pacific. Neutral indicates that conditions are close to their long-term average (Climate.gov Staff, 2016). El Niño occurs irregularly, approximately every four to seven years (Warn, 2016).



Sea surface anomalies in the Pacific Ocean during the La Niña (top) and the El Niño (bottom) 1997-1998 season.
Figure 1: Sea surface anomalies in the Pacific Ocean during the La Niña (top) and the El Niño (bottom) 1997-1998 season. (Climate.gov Staff, 2016)

Since when has this climatic phenomenon been occurring?

In 1891, Dr. Luis Carranza, the President of the Lima Geographical Society, wrote a brief article highlighting the discovery of a counter-current flowing from north to south between the ports of Paita and Pacasmayo. Local sailors in Paita, named this counter-current the ‘El Niño’ current (referring to the Child Jesus) because it consistently appeared shortly after Christmas (Cane, 1986). However, the documented history of El Niño truly begins in the 1500s, when European cultures arrived in the New World and encountered indigenous American cultures, see Figure 2.



Historical Record of El Niño Events
Figure 2: Historical Record of El Niño Events (Warn, 2016).

Nonetheless, El Niño’s origins date back far into history. Evidence of warmer seas and increased rainfall has been detected in coral samples and other paleoclimate indicators since the last Ice Age. Earth scientists, historians, and archaeologists theorize that El Niño may have played a role in the demise or disruption of several ancient civilizations, including the Moche, the Inca, and other cultures in the Americas (Carlowicz and Schollaert, 2017).


Scientists use sedimentary records from natural sensors such as lakes and seas to trace the history of ENSO. The exact start of ENSO phenomena is not clearly evident. Some studies suggest that the closure of the Isthmus of Panama, around 3.5 to 4.0 million years ago, might have triggered the beginning of the current ENSO (Giralt et al., 2007). More recently, a sedimentary sequence found in Ecuador’s Laguna Pallcacocha, formed during the Holocene geological epoch, is commonly used as a proxy to understand the variations in the El Niño Southern Oscillation. This sequence, located in Cajas National Park (Figure 3), Ecuador, stands out among other ENSO proxies due to its detailed time resolution and consistent nature (Mark et al., 2022).



On the left is the location of Cajas National Park in Ecuador (de Córdova y Santillán, 2006), and on the right is a photograph of this National Park.
Figure 3: On the left is the location of Cajas National Park in Ecuador (de Córdova y Santillán, 2006), and on the right is a photograph of this National Park (Johnson, 2023).

Which part of the world does El Niño affects the most?

The scientists who first studied the El Niño phenomenon believed it was a local occurrence, and this perspective persisted for about 50 years. However, after the Second World War, scientists with data from ocean vessels, buoys, weather balloons, satellites, and sophisticated computer models, came to realize that the event has global consequences (Grove and Adamson, 2018). In other words, the phenomenon is believed to cause interactions in the atmosphere worldwide, known as teleconnections (Figure 4). Scientists are discovering an increasing number of these teleconnections, indicating that the combined effects have a global impact (Warn, 2016).



Global impacts of El Niño. Cool, warm, hot and dry regions.
Figure 4: Global impacts of El Niño (Lindsey, 2016)

The most serious occurrence of El Niño in the last century was in 1997-1998, resulting in the tragic death toll of hundreds in various countries. This event brought devastating floods, wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, famines, and diseases. There were massive losses in crops and livestock, and severe disruptions in global weather patterns. However, for the first time, meteorologists could predict and provide details about the phenomenon globally (Corporación Andina de Fomento, 2000).


Impact of the El Niño climate phenomenon on Ecuador

Ecuador has experienced the impactful economic and human consequences of the El Niño phenomenon at least twice: in the 1982-1983 season (for 11 months) and in the 1997-1998 season (for 19 months). In both events, this natural phenomenon claimed hundreds of lives and resulted in multimillion-dollar economic losses (PRIMICIAS, 2023).


In regards to the former event, research has shown that an exceptional El Niño event occurred in the Pacific Ocean during 1982-1983. This led to unusually high levels of rainfall in Ecuador, with increases ranging from 50% to 1000% compared to the average of normal years (Corporación Andina de Fomento, 2000), see Table 1. In agricultural regions, flooding was triggered by river overflows or heavy rainfall, which resulted in the destruction of thousands of hectares of crops and plantations (rice, banana, coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, soybeans, etc.). The flooding also hindered new plantations and caused the death of livestock, as they were unable to be moved on time. Transportation of agricultural and livestock products was impeded due to flooded roads and bridge closures (Corporación Andina de Fomento, 2000).


Table 1. Average precipitation during the exceptional El Niño phenomenon of 1982-1983 (Corporación Andina de Fomento, 2000).

Rainfall weather station

Average precipitation (mm)

1964-1978

Average precipitation (mm)

1982-1983

Guayaquil

1016

4600

Portoviejo

448

2204

Manta

226

1835

Salinas

126

3184

Machala

471

3184

Milagro

1255

4419

Santo Domingo

3375

5774

Esmeraldas

723

1569

The flooding also led to a significant wave of human migration. Thousands of families relocated due to their homes being destroyed, their crops being lost, their job opportunities diminished, or whether they sought protection in shelters (Organización Panamericana de la Salud, 2000). During this season, which destroyed almost all the harvest of the fertile coastal area, the impoverished campesinos dedicated themselves to searching for gold, locating the Ponce Enríquez field. Since then, an increasing gold fever has taken hold of large sections of the poorer population (Litherland et al., 1994).


Due to mudslides occurring in specific regions as a result of heavy rainfall, important oil pipelines experienced interruptions, adversely affecting the Ecuadorian petroleum industry. Notably, the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline, connecting to the Esmeraldas refinery, suffered a disruption, leading to the spillage of petroleum and fuels (Corporación Andina de Fomento, 2000).


Newspaper clippings about the phenomenon that occurred between 1997-1998 in Ecuador.
Figure 5: Newspaper clippings about the phenomenon that occurred between 1997-1998 (PRIMICIAS, 2023).

The assessment of economic damages from the 1982-1983 El Niño reached a total of USD 640.6 million, whereas the estimated total economic damages from the 1997-1998 event stood at USD 2869.3 million. The latter is nearly four times higher than the former and has been primarily attributed to a larger population and concentrated capital in the affected and more extensive area (Organización Panamericana de la Salud, 2000), see Figure 5.


What has Ecuador learned from the El Niño phenomenon?

Ecuador has learned important lessons from the El Niño events that took place in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998. Alongside international organizations, the country has studied the historical impacts of these phenomena. The joint effort has resulted in scientific publications outlining the affected areas (Figure 6). Furthermore, Ecuador has taken proactive steps by implementing engineering projects to mitigate the impact of El Niño. By combining scientific research with practical infrastructure development, Ecuador is actively working to enhance resilience and address the challenges posed by future El Niño occurrences.


With an investment of approximately USD 1 billion, the national government, through the National Water Secretariat and the Public Water Company, aims for the new infrastructure to put an end to flooding caused during the winter season and the El Niño phenomenon. The goal is to ensure water availability for productive irrigation during dry periods. Among the six mega-projects, four focus on flood control: Bulubulu, multipurpose Chone, Cañar, and Naranjal (Figure 6). In the case of Daule-Vinces and Chongón-San Vicente, they enable the distribution of water to areas requiring it for agricultural irrigation through various infrastructure projects (Mestanza, 2016).


Left: the potential impact zone generated by the El Niño phenomenon is displayed (Thielen et al., 2023). The red box indicates the area of the Cañar and Naranjal project. Right: a flooding scenario in the Cañar River is shown
Figure 6: The upper image showcases the flood control project Cañar and Naranjal is depicted (Canal Empresa Pública del Agua Ecuador, 2015). In the lower left corner, the potential impact zone generated by the El Niño phenomenon is displayed (Thielen et al., 2023). The red box indicates the area of the Cañar and Naranjal project. In the lower right corner, a flooding scenario in the Cañar River is shown (Canal Empresa Pública del Agua Ecuador, 2017).

Conclusions

Disaster prevention is crucial to ensure human security. It should therefore play a significant role in the strategic agenda of the regions that are most susceptible to natural extreme events. We often witness, with a sense of helplessness, how a natural phenomenon can swiftly destroy infrastructure that humans have painstakingly built over the years. This is not to mention the heart-wrenching loss of human lives, as well as the widespread hunger and disease caused by floods and droughts. Additionally, there is the issue of governmental corruption, where funds are not allocated for infrastructure investments aimed at mitigating the impact of natural phenomena. Corrupt practices divert resources away from essential projects, leaving communities more susceptible to the destructive forces of nature.


It’s a well-known fact that many countries find it challenging to independently kickstart the arduous task of reconstruction after such disasters. These countries often need to seek international cooperation and solidarity, especially when located in the so-called “Global South.” Therefore, it becomes imperative to view these disasters not just as tragic events but also as significant hurdles to development. Addressing and prioritizing preventive measures should be at the forefront of these countries’ collective efforts to build resilience and safeguard our communities.


Ecuador has demonstrated commendable efforts through its infrastructure projects and research endeavors, planning for a more resilient future. The investments made in flood control projects and comprehensive studies on climate phenomena serve as a testament to the nation’s commitment to mitigate the impact of natural disasters. These initiatives are not merely present-day endeavors; rather, they represent an investment in the well-being of future generations. It is crucial for the youth to be informed and engaged in these efforts, as the outcomes directly influence our collective quality of life.


References
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