CSIR researchers confirm latest El Niño is among harshest in history


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22nd April 2024

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online


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A research team tasked to monitor the impact of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climatic phenomenon has confirmed that the 2023/24 El Niño was among the top five strongest on record.

El Niño is associated with warmer and drier weather conditions in South Africa.

The researchers, or the ENSO Reference Group, which is convened by the Access programme of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), finds that the 2023/24 El Niño saw global sea surface temperatures and global average surface temperatures breach new records.

In South Africa, the impact of the 2023/24 El Niño is apparent in the comparison of dam capacity levels at the end of this season, which were about 6% lower than they were at the end of the summer rainfall season in 2023.

Additionally, El Niño has led to reductions in maize and soybean production, with both commodities recording output declines of 13% and 23%, respectively, compared with the previous season.

Fortunately, the ENSO Reference Group explains, the impacts of the latest El Niño have been offset by the good rains in prior years owing to the presence of La Niña between 2021 and 2023, which has the opposite effect of El Niño with lower than average sea surface temperatures, and generally colder and wetter conditions on land.

There was, therefore, sufficient water storage to offset most of the impacts of the drier conditions, with generally fuller dam levels.

However, seven out of nine of South Africa’s provinces are showing emptier dams at the end of this summer season, compared with the end of the 2023 summer season.

ENSO is a term used to describe the naturally occurring dynamic ocean-atmosphere phases of a significant part of the Pacific Ocean. This dynamic state fluctuates over periods of months along a gradient where two extreme states are known as El Niño and La Niña.

The ENSO Reference Group cites data from as finding that the world is experiencing record global sea surface temperatures this year, as well as record average air temperatures in some regions.

Global and local research confirms that atmospheric temperatures are rising steadily and that this year’s El Niño, combined with the warming oceans, are delivering record levels of this atmospheric warming.

In South Africa’s case, air temperatures averaged higher than historical averages, with November and February experiencing the highest number of heat wave days – in excess of the average.

Regionally, grain crops in Zambia and Zimbabwe were also hit hard by hot and dry conditions.

While this season’s El Niño has started waning, early signs of La Niña are appearing, the ENSO Reference Group states. The team continues to monitor climate conditions to try and unpack the extreme weather events that have become a reality.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online



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