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El Niño Geopolitics

600px-1997_El_Nino_TOPEXThis is a cross-post by Mehmet Burk with Relief Analysis Services. 

For international security analysts, humanitarian operations planners, and humanitarian logisticians, the ability to identify emerging global hot spots is crucial. Over the coming months, areas such as Syria, the Crimea, Venezuela, Sudan, and the Central African Republic will no doubt make a list of potential shatter belts, complex emergencies, and geopolitical flashpoints worth monitoring. But there’s another region on the Earth’s surface that the security and humanitarian community absolutely must monitor. It’s a relatively obscure swath of ocean to the west of South America stretching into the vast Pacific. It’s the fertile ground where an El Niño event may unfold over the coming months, and the implications are significant.The risks of El Niño are numerous, including increased drought and fire risk in India and Australasia, diminished food production in the Asia-Pacific region with potential ramifications throughout the global marketplace, a potential increase for severe Pacific storms (look no further than the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan last year to gauge potential implications), to a very unwelcome potential setback in Africa’s Sahel food security situation.

In addition, based on research led by Solomon Hsiang and published in the journal Nature, a positive correlation can be drawn across the globe’s tropics correlating increases in conflict in nations impacted by El Niño. In this illuminating graphic from the study, the caption very clearly states:

Countries where the majority of the population lives in areas that become much warmer in El Niño years (red) are more likely to experience wars than those where temperatures are less affected (blue). [emphasis added]

Mexico, much of Latin America, all of Sub-Saharan Africa (including Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic), India, and all of Southeast Asia share this dubious “red” distinction. International analysts, logisticians, and planners are indeed wise to study this map over the coming months.

Yet the 2014 El Niño may have another nefarious card to play in terms of its wide-ranging geopolitical and humanitarian implications. The potential “black swan” of latent heat from the global warming hiatus may be pushed below the surface of the Pacific thanks to unprecedented strong trade winds. Any let down of the trade winds may prompt this large amount of subducted heat to rapidly return to the atmosphere.

The question is, could a strong 2014 El Niño—a phenomenon that by nature slows the Pacific trade wind regime—be the potential trigger that could release this large volume of heat back into the atmosphere and quickly accelerate the impacts of climate change? According to Helen McGregor, of the University of Wollongong and as reported by the Australian:

Projections of global surface air temperature are very much tied to the strength of the trade winds…if we have tropical Pacific events such as El Niño, which reduce trade wind strength…we are likely to see rates of global warming increase.
And when the latent heat does emerge, according to England,

It’s highly likely that air temperature change over the planet will be one of relatively rapid warming, probably exceeding the warming rate of the ’80s and ’90s… If you pump heat into the ocean, it’s just sitting there waiting to be given back. [Emphasis Added]

While climate scientists, oceanographers, and meteorologists will need to take some time to come to terms with the complex nature of these processes, the geopolitical security analyst and humanitarian logistician must approach this problem set differently. For them, planning often involves envisioning a worst case scenario then scaling appropriately for plausibility and likelihood.

For the security analysis and humanitarian communities, it is possible that the collective hand we are now playing holds a wildcard of significant change over the coming months.

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