El Niño is here. Named a long time ago by Peruvian fishermen, the phenomenon represents unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean.
This season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports a strong El Niño situation, which is expected to last through the end of winter.
Peru is among the countries most severely affected when it happens. Even though it’s summer there now, coastal fisheries depend on cold offshore water for a good fish catch.
Their major product is the Peru anchoveta. Most of it is processed into fishmeal, a highly nutritious ingredient in animal feed, ranging from livestock to poultry and various fish species. During the past 10 years, the anchoveta has also been available for human food, sold in canned form as Peru sardines.
Cold water hitting the Peruvian coast causes upwelling, or a flow from the bottom to the top. This sweeps up nutrients that support the growth of the fish population. When the water is too warm, upwelling stops, and fishery catches dwindle.
The temperature difference can be as little as 0.5 degrees Celsius for NOAA to define it as an El Niño. Other economic opportunities are sparse on the Peruvian coast. Heavy, cool air that’s present most of the time makes it the world’s driest desert.
Traveling south from Lima toward the Chilean border will lead you through a barren land of sand and rocks, without even a shrub or cactus as you would see in the North American deserts. A virtual tour in Google Maps is quite illustrative. For example, go to the Ilo Province in southern Peru, click on Highway 1E and choose “street view,” then drive south.
Along with the fisheries problems, El Niño also brings heavy rainfall. The precipitation quickly runs off the dried-up ground, causing flooding. In December, 2,000 people were already affected by six overflowing rivers in the San Martin and neighboring provinces of Peru.
One might think that the rain would help the Lima area, where many residents depend on trucked-in water. With yearly rain totals less than 2 inches, “it never rains in Lima” bears some truth.
But just like occasional deluges in North Georgia, El Niño events don’t help with overall shortages. The term “water insecurity” as a mix of drought and flooding is becoming established as a continuous 21st century problem and will keep appearing in the Atlanta area as well.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.