The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Information has predicted a 95 percent chance that the current El Niño cycle will continue through the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, only beginning to gradually weaken in spring 2016. According to NOAA, this El Niño is shaping up to be the strongest one on record since experts began tracking the phenomenon in 1950.

El Niño is a periodic fluctuation in sea surface temperature and overlying air pressure across the equatorial Pacific Ocean; it occurs every 2-7 years and typically lasts between 9 and 12 months. These warming seas and fluctuating barometric pressures impact weather patterns in a variety of ways, and virtually every continent is currently seeing the effects.

According to the latest FEWS Net alert, East Africa and much of Central America and the Caribbean (CAC) have seen significantly reduced rainfall as a result of this season’s El Niño-driven changes, contributing to crisis-level food insecurity in these regions. The report cites that earlier this year, the CAC region reported the driest Primera/Printemps cropping season in 35 years. According to FEWS Net’s latest weekly Global Weather Hazards Report, the CAC region now faces the opposite problem-- heavy rains which are causing flooding and landslides in several areas, particularly Guatemala.

Areas in South and Southeast Asia, such as India, Thailand, and Vietnam, have also reported drier than average conditions, with reduced rainfalls leading to reduced planting areas and shortened growing seasons. While subsistence farmers in these areas are particularly at risk for significant crop reduction and even crop failure, reduced production could have implications for global food supplies as well. South and Southeast Asia are two important rice surplus-producing regions. While global rice stocks are currently fine, a long-term deterioration of cropping conditions in these regions due to reduced rainfall could have an impact on future global supplies. This could pose a significant problem for food security in rice-importing regions such as Africa and Central America and the Caribbean.

Agricultural production has also declined in southern Africa as a result of dry conditions. Preliminary estimates suggest that maize production in South Africa and Malawi is the lowest in more than five years. At the same time, the Horn of Africa, Central Asia, and South and North America are all expected to see above-average precipitation. While increased rainfall could have some benefits for agricultural production, it can also lead to severe flooding. Such flooding has been reported by the FEWS Net Global Weather Hazards Report in northern Senegal, and predicted heavy rains next week in the western Gulf of Guinea could trigger floods in that area as well.

Changing ocean temperatures can also impact the migration patterns and food chains of marine life; this in turn can negatively impact the economies and food security of coastal areas that rely on fishing.

Variations in the development of this year’s El Niño mean that the effects will likely differ from those seen during the last strong event in 1997-1998 (Washington Post Capital Weather Gang blog, August 13, 2015). While this year’s phenomenon was in full swing by April, the 1997-1998 event took longer to build up. Similarly, the warmest water this year has been found in the central Pacific; in 1997-1998, the warmest water reached all the way east to coastal South America. These variations in strength and reach may make El Niño’s effects more difficult to predict, as weather patterns will not follow the same trends seen in previous decades.

For more in-depth regional analysis of El Nino’s impacts and what this could mean specifically for food security at the regional level, visit our related blogs on the India Food Security Portal, the Central America and the Caribbean (CAC) Food Security Portal, and the Africa south of the Sahara (SSA) Food Security Portal.

BY: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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