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El Nino May Reappear, Meteorologists Warn - 2002-03-31

The World Meteorological Organization says it is likely that the weather phenomenon known as El Nino will re-appear in the coming months. The Geneva-based WMO says tell-tale signs of this potentially devastating climatic condition are emerging.

Scientists say the probability that a new El Nino will develop is certainly stronger now. They say March to June is a critical period, in which many of the current uncertainties will be clarified.

But the WMO's director of climate change, Michael Coughlin, says evidence is emerging that El Nino will return this year after an absence of five years. "We are already seeing in the eastern Pacific El Nino-like conditions occurring in that area," he pointed out. "For example, in the report there, it mentions flood rains, landslides and already some loss of life in Ecuador. And there have been several reports of that in the last two-to-three weeks. So, those conditions are typical of an El Nino."

The El Nino weather phenomenon is caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean. This creates changes in the air pressure, which, in turn, can trigger abnormal conditions such as drought, flooding and tropical rain storms.

The last El Nino, in 1997-98, cost an estimated $34 billion to the world economy, killed about 24,000 people and made some six million others homeless.

WMO's deputy director-general, Michel Jarraud, agrees that many signs point to another El Nino. But he cautions that all kinds of uncertainties exist in this kind of forecasting. "Often it is tempting to say that when there is an El Nino, that El Nino explains everything unusual you see on the planet. And it is not the case," he said. "El Nino is a strong signal in some places, it has a weaker response in some other places. But even without El Nino, you have a lot of variability. You can have floods in some parts of the world without El Nino, you can have droughts in El Nino. But when there is El Nino, you have in addition this added strong signal."

The meteorologists says no two El Ninos are exactly alike, but there are some common signals. At this stage, they say, they are putting the chance of a new El Nino at 50-50.