You may recall that in our last newsletter I wanted you all to take the cries of climate alarmists shouting "El Niño!" with a grain of salt. I still want you to do that, because many of them may be talking about the big picture problems like crossing 1.5°C when El Niño is sort of goosing the numbers–complicated stuff that matters, just not quite how they say. But I also want to look, briefly, at where we stand right now and how El Niño might alter that toward the end of this summer and into next year. I could even be wrong to spurn the alarmists, because El Nino may indeed boost the global temperature by a bit in addition to its regular motions, thanks to increased atmospheric heat absorption (so there's the "goosed" increase of it bringing warm water to the surface where it can be measured but always existed, and the "real" increase brought about by changes in cloud dynamics).
Less than a year ago I sent out our first climate scoreboard–something I have no intention of making a yearly thing–to illustrate the immense number of records that were being broken across the world. This year (though we've still got a few months to break shit) I want to invoke the scoreboard again. Even if we haven't quite been shattering records like last year, we've still been doing a number on them, and because we're talking about disasters, they all matter. This is all to set the stage for what El Niño will almost certainly ramp up.
You might recall that last year there was a heatwave in India just before a (late) monsoon season that had a lot of folks worried. China, later, suffered perhaps the greatest heatwave in recorded history. Parts of the United States didn't do too bad, either, but I don't think we broke many longstanding records. Keep these in your head a moment.
The spring of 2023 has started off with heatwaves in South and Southeast Asia that have broken records for the hottest April and May in some countries, with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam suffering particularly. A fresh, seasonally-early heatwave is hitting the Pacific Northwest as of this writing. Spain and Portugal also endured a recent heatwave, coupled with a long and severe drought–on the back of last summer's European heatwave, which is estimated to have killed 20,000. A recent study has stated that a massive, long-lasting drought affecting 50 million people in the Horn of Africa was caused by climate change.
Besides heatwaves and droughts, Western Canada is suffering from a huge outbreak of wildfires, encompassing over a million acres at the time of this writing, with nearly 30,000 people evacuated from the 108 different active fires. And to prove it's raining, just not on you–flooding in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed 400, with whole homes swept away.
These disasters are occurring in what is generally considered the ebb of the climactic weather cycle. While El Niño is just the movement of heat already in a system, it has real effects and real consequences, and to see so many disasters–particularly those related to heat when El Niño is bound to bump that up, is worrying. You may have already heard that ocean temperatures are well above normal just coming off La Niña, which typically represents a cool period. This, perhaps more than anything, is extremely disconcerting.
While El Niño may form as early as this summer, most of its strength will probably get flexed next year. Historically, some of the worst years, globally, for disaster have occurred during El Niño sequences, and you may remember that in 2016, during an El Niño, the highest global temperature ever recorded was posted. Since that time, all of the following years have been among the hottest ever.
We should be bracing for these impacts. Conditions across much of the United States will be warmer and drier than usual, with the South experiencing a good deal more precipitation, contrariwise. The particulars are as unforecastable as the specifics of climate change, but that's the general US outlook. That may not seem like much to go on, but we don't have to look back that far to see that the worst tends to happen during El Niño, and we are already very much suffering under present conditions. In a much more present tense than usual, we can expect things to get worse under El Niño. I am anticipating droughts through the Midwest even this summer, just because I'd sooner expect it and plan for my garden than be caught wondering where all the early summer storms have gone.
Should a drought occur in the Midwest–not that it necessarily will–this throws another wrench in the many-wrenched gears of the global food supply, which is still sore from the hampered export of wheat and corn from Ukraine. Not only that, but fuel and fertilizer prices are on the rise, which this article* estimates may have an even stronger impact than the war in Ukraine.
Which isn't the end of potential effects. I try to be somewhat US-centric because it's what I have more knowledge of, but El Niño is a global phenomenon, and while it brings much-needed rains to some regions it also does so in deluges at times, and spreads droughts across other parts of the world like you would expect from such a complex system. India, having already dealt with plenty lately, has been historically vulnerable to El Niño, with millions dying due to its effects combined with British colonialism.
*The article also says that a global food system is more efficient than a localized one due to local harvests of diverse foods requiring "more inputs," which is pretty funny when you think about a pear being grown in South America and then shipped to Thailand for packaging then shipped to the States to be eaten by you at your cubicle in Chicago. But sure, because I had to take ten pounds of compost made by my backyard chickens all the way across the yard to put in my garden bed, that's less efficient. Dorks.
The Broad Strokes
A warmer, wetter, drier, stormier planet is here for a while. And if we continue to burn fossil fuels, which we will, we might hardly notice when El Niño dies off again because we will have matched that heat. This simply serves to underscore the necessity for a change in how we live–the small we, and the grand We. You and I can think about methods for gardening through drought, like employing shade covers to reduce heat on plants in the afternoon, or garden fabric to reduce evaporation. Last year I installed a rain barrel for next to nothing thanks to a local government incentive, and I watered the garden almost entirely off what was collected. Search for local programs and incentives for rain barrels here.
Meanwhile, the big We, well, you know what we need to do: break capitalism and cease the wanton burning of fossil fuels. Maybe, for you, that starts with making sure your garden does well even without rain. Maybe it's volunteering in your community. Maybe it's reading up on other tactics. No matter what, so long as you're working toward that goal, you're doing something worthwhile.