Years from now we may know the costs of the current El Nino

G.B. Poindexter

Hard science lets us know El Nino is real, but how much the weather event could cost Asia and the western United States, in terms of reduced hydroelectric generation and increased fossil fuel cots, is an unknown.

With 500 million more people living in areas with severe water stress and a regional economy three times larger than late 1990s levels, the current El Nino event could cost Asia and the Pacific more than the 1997-98 El Nino cycle. Meteorologists note in the two-year cycle it was one of the most severe on record. Social service organizations estimate the event caused a 15% spike in poverty rates in some countries and economists said El Nino cost governments in the region up to US$45 billion.

No one can argue hydropower’s crucial, life-sustaining need in Asia. In 2014 published reports indicate hydropower provided 100% of Nepal’s energy and more than 90% of Bhutan’s. Further south on the continent, about 70% of Myanmar’s energy came from hydropower and Vietnam received about 30% of its energy production from hydro.

But as water levels fall in drought conditions brought on by the weather event, countries dependent on hydropower become vulnerable to electricity cuts as hydroelectric plants are forced to reduce or completely cease generation. This means less hydropower will lead to increased use of fossil fuels and greater amounts of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

El Nino is clearly no ordinary weather event, and ignoring El Nino is not an option for countries in Asia or the U.S.

Genscape operates a private network of in-the-field monitors and recently added satellite reconnaissance, artificial intelligence, and maritime freight tracking to its data acquisition capabilities.

A blog by a Genscape meteorologists said, “The likelihood of a cold winter in conjunction with a strong El Nino southern oscillation seems small for this year, as California winters in recent years have been moderated by the anomalously warm waters of the coastal Pacific (the Pacific “warm blob” that has persisted since 2013) and general warming trends in recent decades.

“Furthermore, one strong El Nino year (even with a cold winter) is unlikely bring the western snowpack to normal levels. The depletion of snowpack has occurred over several years, and will likely take several years of strong moisture flux to replenish it.”

To top it off, the Coupled Forecast System forecast predicts the Pacific Northwest will remain hotter and drier than seasonal norms, so any benefit of El Nino-induced precipitation will likely be limited to California and the southwest.”

While economies will deal with the lower amounts of energy being generated from hydropower, it will be years before the cost, in terms of the effect on carbon emissions and economies, of the current El Nino is fully known.
 

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