El Niño is a large scale oceanographic / meteorological phenomenon that develops in the Pacific Ocean, which is associated with extreme climatic variability; i.e., devastating rains, winds, drought, etc. It is the migration, from time to time, of warm surface waters from the western equatorial Pacific Basin to the eastern equatorial Pacific region, along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador. This condition can prevail for more than a year, adversely affecting economies in both local and global scales.

El Niño translates from Spanish as the "Boy Child" or the "Little One". It used to be considered a local event along the coasts Peru and Ecuador. The term was traditionally used by the Peruvian anchovy fishermen to describe the appearance of a warm ocean current flowing along the south American coast around Christmas time.

Under normal conditions, the prevailing southeasterly trade winds produce a surface current flowing toward the equator along the western South American coast. The waters leaving the coast are replace by colder waters from below (upwelling), which is rich in phytoplankton, the food source of anchovy.

The warm current (El Niño) temporarily displaces nutrient-rich upwelling cold water resulting in the heavy harvest of anchovies. The abundant catch, however, is shortlived. What follows is a sharp decline in the fish population , resulting in a lesser catch. At times, warming is exceptionally strong and ruins the anchovy harvest.

Characteristics of El Niño

  • It occurs in the Pacific basin every 2 to 9 years;
  • It usually starts during the Northern winter (December to February);
  • Once established, it lasts until the first half of the following year, although at times, it stays longer;
  • It exhibits phase-locking in annual cycles (El Niño and rainfall
  • fluctuations associated with it tend to recur at the same time of the year; and
  • It usually has a biennial cycle (El Niño events will often be preceded and/or followed by La Niña).

Climatic Indicators of El Niño in the Philippines

Abnormalities such as:

  • delayed onset of the rainy season
  • early termination of the rainy season
  • weak monsoon activity
    • isolated heavy downpours with short duration
  • weak tropical cyclone activity
    • far tropical cyclone track
    • less number of tropical cyclones entering the PAR
    • less intense tropical cyclones

Effects of El Niño in the Philippines

In the Philippines, drought events are associated with the occurrence of El Niño episodes. Second and third order impacts of El Niño related drought events in the Philippines include:

(a) environmental (degradation of soil which could lead to desert-like conditions if persistent, effect on water quality like salt water intrusion, high forest/grass/bus fire risk, domestic water supply shortages, etc.);

(b) social (disruption of normal human activities, migration to urban communities, human and health problems, etc.); and

(c) economic (unemployment, food shortages, significant reduction in the productivity and subsequent revenue of various industries, hydro-electric power generation, etc.).

Source: PAGASA

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