In the Footsteps of El Niño

By Audrey Tan (Twitter: @STaudreyt)

Few may understand how this climate phenomenon works, when it will strike, or how severe it could be. Yet, many are familiar with its name: El Niño. 

For when the El Niño winds of change blow and the Pacific Ocean churns in acquiescence, devastation and loss tend to follow. The three strong El Niño events of the past five decades in 1982/1983, 1997/1998, 2015/2016, were testament to this. 

In those years, as El Niño blitzed across the Pacific Ocean, forest fires in the west Pacific spiralled out of control, causing South-east Asia to be blanketed in a thick layer of haze. In the east, large amounts of rain increased the spread of pathogens and allowed invasive species to flourish. And as the Pacific Ocean warmed and stifled the upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich water along the western coast of the Americas, animals died, fishermen suffered, and industries collapsed. 

A journalist by profession, I found El Niño and its wide-ranging impacts an interesting hook for climate communication. So as part of my research under the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Master of Advanced Study in Climate Science and Policy program, I decided to work on a newspaper feature and documentary on El Niño and its link to climate change. With the support of the Julia R. Brown Fund for Climate Change Research and Education, I travelled to Indonesia and the Galápagos Islands in April 2019 to document how El Niño could impact communities across the Pacific Ocean. Both archipelagos sit on the equatorial belt of the Pacific Ocean, and are Ground Zero for the impacts of El Niño.

Riding through burnt landscapes of what were once stands of acacia trees, grown for the production of pulp and paper, in Riau, Indonesia in April 2019. El Nino causes hotter and drier weather in the west Pacific, which worsens forest fires typical of the agroforestry landscape in Indonesia. There, fire is often used to open land for new plantations.
Credit: Mark Cheong/ The Straits Times

 My aim was to humanize El Niño, and highlight how climatic events were affecting real communities in real places. Thence, the opportunity to visit both regions was invaluable as it enabled me to interview people whose lives and work were directly impacted by these events. 

As I have learnt through my reporting and through the coverage of events such as the United Nations Climate Change conference in Poland in December 2018, the stories of people bearing the brunt of climatic events often do not feature prominently in mainstream climate discourse. My hope is that with greater awareness of these stories, it may spur greater ambition among nations and their constituents to safeguard not just the environment, but also the people and wildlife that depend on it. 

In Indonesia, I interviewed a man who lost his son at the height of the 2015 El Niño. That year, El Niño chased away the rain in the usually wet and humid west Pacific, worsening the forest fires typical of Indonesia’s agroforestry landscape. The resulting haze caused the death of the 12-year-old boy, who died after a week of breathing difficulties and nights where he could not fall asleep. 

Indonesian journalist Mukhlis Senin Wijaya, 40, lost his eldest son, Mohannum Anggriawati, during the 2015 El Nino. The 12-year-old had died after days of breathing difficulties and nights where he simply could not fall asleep.
Credit: Mark Cheong/ The Straits Times

On the Galapagos Islands, I interviewed scientists and policy-makers who shared stories of how strong El Niño events in 1982 and 1997 almost led to the collapse of the population of the world’s only equator-dwelling penguins. The Galapagos Islands had once inspired Darwin, and the unique creatures that call them home continue to spark the imagination of all who visit. But as El Niño events have shown, they are vulnerable to sudden fluctuations in the weather. 

The Galapagos penguin, the world’s only equator-dwelling penguin species, is severely affected when El Nino affects the eastern end of the Pacific basin.
Credit: Mark Cheong/ The Straits Times

A blue-footed booby pictured here against a backdrop of the arid landscape of the Galápagos Islands. The booby is a seabird that is severely affected when El Nino events hit, bringing excess rain that can destroy nests. When the seas warm during an El Nino, the oceanic foodweb also starves and this affects the ability of the blue-footed booby to get enough food.
Credit: Mark Cheong/ The Straits Times

It has been widely noted in the literature that El Niño events can destroy lives and fall economies. But beyond that, these stories all show that as the climate changes, it is not just dollars and cents that are at stake. There are also stories of love and loss – of kin, of nature, and of the things whose mere existence enrich our lives. It may be difficult to peg a dollar value to the presence of a blue-footed booby. But I can personally attest to the fullness of my heart when I saw this seabird preening by the rocks near the pier on San Cristobal Island in the Galápagos. 

Scientists are still studying how the frequency and severity of El Niño events would be impacted by anthropogenic climate change. But El Niño’s impacts, ranging from warming sea surface temperatures to changing rainfall patterns, mirror that of long-term projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

In a way, severe El Niño events offer us a glimpse into what things could be like in a warming world. This project aims to provide that window: 

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