Mint Explainer: El Nino is coming; are we ready?

The transition from an La Nina to a neutral or an El Nino phase can trigger significant monsoon-deficit in India.
The transition from an La Nina to a neutral or an El Nino phase can trigger significant monsoon-deficit in India.


  • Prepare for droughts and poor harvests.

The world must brace for a possible El Nino next year, a climate pattern expected to drive up temperatures and trigger upheavals across the globe. India too will be impacted, with a possible monsoon deficit in 2023. Indeed, erratic weather patterns, driven by climate change and made worse by recurring phenomena like El Nino, will be a big challenge for the world in the future. It will take a heavy toll on agriculture and may call upon governments to substantially raise food buffer stocks and crop yields over the years.

What is El Nino?

El Nino and La Nina are the opposite climate patterns of a phenomenon called the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

ENSO refers to changes in eastern tropical Pacific Ocean surface temperatures and atmospheric circulation because of shifting wind patterns. ENSO has three different cycles: El Nino, La Nina and a neutral phase.

During El Nino, ocean temperatures warm up over the tropical eastern Pacific, accompanied by intense climate changes. El Nino has an irregular cycle, occurring every two to seven years. It has an impact on global weather patterns, from South East Asia to Australia and North and South America. El Nino is the "warm phase" of the ENSO.

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La Nina is the opposite of El Nino, where sea surface temperatures cool over the east-central equatorial Pacific, in turn cooling temperatures in many pockets of the globe. Li Nina is the "cool phase" of ENSO.

For the moment, the world may be at the tail end of a La Nina phase that began in September 2020, and it may transition into an ENSO neutral phase during January to April 2023, according to different estimates by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the Columbia Climate School Research Institute for Climate and Society. The Columbia School believes there is almost 60% to 66% probability of an El Nino phase in the second half of 2023, beginning July.

Also, four years of a La Nina has never been recorded so far, increasing the possibility of an ENSO-neutral or an El Nina in 2023.

How does El Nino impact the world?

When El Nino occurs, warm water flow towards eastern tropical Pacific. An unusually warm sea triggers evaporation, cooling the ocean. As clouds are formed, it heats up the atmosphere, raising global average surface temperatures.

This triggers climate upheavals across the globe -- torrential rains in Peru and Ecuador and droughts in Australia and harsh winters in parts of the US.

Now, La Nina is the opposite of El Nino. Cold water collects over the eastern Pacific, and the cooler air over the ocean surface doesn’t trigger rainstorms. La Nina keeps temperatures lower in many countries, and a transition to El Nino may lead to a warmer, hotter planet, including India, in 2023.

How does El Nino impact India?

India has some reason to be concerned about a possible onset of El Nino towards the middle of next year. Now, in a normal year, during the monsoon, moisture-laden winds blow from the western Pacific towards the Indian Ocean and India. During an El Nino, the direction of the moisture-laden wind reverses, bringing torrential rains over places like Peru, while India becomes relatively rain-starved.

The transition from an La Nina to a neutral or an El Nino phase can trigger significant monsoon-deficit in India. In fact, 10 of the 13 droughts in India since 1950 have been during an El Nino.

The bottom line

Climate change triggered erratic weather patterns, made worse by climate patterns like El Nino in some years, will take a heavy toll on agriculture and crop harvests, across the world, including India, in the years ahead. Indeed, this year, a heat wave in March and April spoilt wheat crops, while unseasonal rainfall in October is believed to have damaged kharif crops, worsening food inflation.

It will clearly call upon the government to build a substantial buffer of food stocks, more so in the good seasons for agriculture to tide over shortages in other years. The government may do well to revise its food buffer norms, maybe raising stocks in the years to come. It will be a challenge, but essential to keep food prices in check. Also, keep in mind that the government is now giving free foodgrains to 800 million Indians, and, for that, ample foodgrain stocks are essential.

And, of course, building robust cold chains to store foodgrains and prevent wastage is vital. It has been a problem for independent India over the years.

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