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Weather Forecasters Say El Nino May Soon Return - 2004-10-06


Some meteorologists warn that a weather pattern known as El Nino may reemerge in the next few months, raising concerns of drought in Southeast Asia and Australia, and flooding in parts of the Americas.

An El Nino occurs when the ocean surface off the western coast of South America warms up more than usual. The warmer ocean alters wind and rain patterns over much of the world, causing drought in some areas, such as Southeast Asia and floods in both North and South America.

The pattern often is noticed late in the year, the Christmas holiday, giving rise to the name, El Nino, which refers to the Christ child in Spanish.

Tobin Gorey, an economist at Commonwealth Bank in Sydney, says an El Nino, which typically lasts for a year, can do substantial damage to the agricultural sector of Asia-Pacific economies. That can hurt consumers.

"Without that rainfall, crops they're much more diminished," said Tobin Gorey. "So it does push up prices for agricultural products and diminishes their exports for Australia, but also increases the import bill for countries through Asia." Malaysia and Thailand suffered a big drop in the production of export staples such as rice and palm oil during the 1997-1998 El Nino, one of the worst in the past few decades.

Malaysia says a four-month El Nino would reduce its palm oil production by 20 percent.

Father Jose Villarin is head of the climate studies division of the Manila Observatory in the Philippines. He notes that many meteorologists think there was a mild El Nino less than two years ago, which means it is less likely there will be one this year. They tend to appear every two to seven years.

Still, he says, an El Nino can bring great misery to the Philippines.

"It really makes our people suffer," said Jose Villarin, "Our farmers. Rice, we have to import it in huge quantities just to feed our people."

Father Villarin says although weather forecasters cannot predict how destructive the next El Nino will be, diversifying cropping patterns can minimize the damage to farmers.

"So if we know that rice, for example, needs a lot of water, then we don't plant rice when El Nino is about to hit us, or we plant rice in a place where we're pretty sure there is at least some water," he said. "We don't plant rice where there's going to be drought. That will just be a waste of resources. It's really a disaster mitigation measure to cope with the lack of rain."

Some countries also worry about El Nino damage to the fishing industry. Warmer ocean temperatures in the Pacific kills the plankton and other tiny organisms fish eat, and the fish then migrate to cooler northern waters. What is more, El Ninos often bring more storms to Asia, damaging coastlines and threatening fishing boats.