The Heat Is Online

Better El Nino Forecasts Could Reduce Damage

El Nino Can Be Predicted Further Ahead, Scientists Say, April 15, 2004

LONDON - The hugely damaging El Nino weather pattern can be predicted further ahead than previously thought, giving farmers crucial time to prepare for its devastating effects, new research shows.

But economists say it will still be difficult to avoid the billions of dollars in damage caused by the phenomenon, when the eastern and central Pacific Ocean heats up, playing havoc with agriculture and causing flooding and drought around the globe.

The last severe El Nino took place between 1997 and 1999, causing massive forest fires in southeast Asia and more than $20 billion of damage worldwide.

In the past, scientists believed they could predict an El Nino only nine months in advance. But a study published this week found that previous El Ninos gave warning signs as far ahead as 24 months before they struck.

"We conclude that throughout the past century, El Nino has been more predictable than previously envisaged," said the study, published in the journal Nature.

Back-testing weather data from the past 20 years, Dake Chen of Columbia University in New York and his colleagues were able to forecast El Ninos in 1982 and 1997 accurately two years in advance.

In a commentary published with the paper, David Anderson of the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts said the team were able to make better predictions by correcting for errors in previous models used to predict future weather.

"If (El Nino) events can be predicted, steps can be taken to mitigate the losses," he wrote.

But economist Jay Bryson of U.S. bank Wachovia Corp said more advanced warnings of a looming El Nino might not be enough to lessen its effects, especially on emerging economies which may depend on a single crop. "Even though you know there is an El Nino coming, does it mean that we can really stop its effect?" he asked. "If you had research that could predict the timing and exactly what parts of a certain area would be hit, that would be more helpful."