El Niño and Peru: A Connected History
Today, El Niño is a weather term most people are familiar with – or have at least heard of.
But long before international meteorological organizations and modern scientific instruments, Peruvians were already well aware of what we know today to be a globally intertwined weather phenomenon with rippling affects all over the world.
How did Peruvians know about this before anyone else?
They’re the ones who’ve always been most impacted by the event, a change of jet streams and water currents that brings warm water eastward toward the Pacific, occurring about every two to seven years.
El Niño can cause weather abnormalities to all parts of the planet – from severe droughts in Asia and Australia, to intense downpours in the Western U.S. and calm hurricane seasons for the Atlantic – but the most direct impacts fall on Peru.
Evidence suggests the ancient Incas were conscious of what we refer to now as El Niño, which in English translates to “The Christ Child,” a name given to the weather phenomenon by Peruvian fishermen, who’ve historically been the first to notice the warming waters off the coast around Christmastime.
It wasn’t 1982 when the rest of the world started paying attention. It was December of that year when science reporter Walter Sullivan wrote a story for the New York Times’ titled, “Climate Shift Off Peru Tied To Eruption In Mexico.”
Sullivans’ connection between the two events sparked interest in the scientific and meteorological community, which then began using instruments to track and measure future El Niños.
No-one was prepared for what would occur in 1997-98 when the strongest El Niño since 1950 hit.
That season produced a myriad of disastrous repercussions for Peru. Heavy rains along the coast caused landslides, destroying homes and damaging water and sanitation facilities.
The flooding and mudslides wiped out schools and medical facilities, as well as highways, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
The increase in rainfall and temperatures surged the number of viruses spread through mosquitos, such as malaria, yellow fever and dengue.
The country, even with the government spending millions of dollars in advance, was still not prepared for the devastation it came to incur.
Preventative Measures for 2015-16
Now, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is warning 2015-16 may produce the most forceful El Niño the world has seen in the last 60 years.
In response, the Peruvian government has declared a state-of-emergency in various regions, and allocated 250 million Peruvian soles (about $74 million) for preventative measures such as cleaning drains and irrigation channels, river decontamination and building flood walls.
It has also created the National Risk Management Council of El Niño with the goal of being ready to intervene in emergency situations.
Predictability and preparedness can go a long way, said Athanasios Koutavas, a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at The City University of New York (CUNY).
Koutavas, whose research focuses on the dynamics of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) stated, “Yes, absolutely the effects can be mitigated by preparedness, weather monitoring, government issued warnings and response teams.”
“People and public services should be on high alert to respond to the predictable weather effects, especially heavy rains,” he said.
“Areas at risk for landslides and mudslides should have evacuation plans, and be tuned in to government warning systems.”
How effective these measures will be is yet to be seen, as Peru has only just began its’ summer and rainy season.
The WMO expects ramifications from this weather cycle could be felt all the way to April 2016.
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