In the years it hits, the belt of warm ocean waters stretching from South America to Asia, known as El Niño, causes far-reaching changes in climate that lead to devastating floods, droughts that destroy crops, a collapse in fish populations and an increase in tropical diseases. With a return of El Niño expected this year, Dartmouth researchers report in the journal Science that the financial damage caused by the recurring climate pattern could persist for several years after the event itself and cost trillions in lost income worldwide. This study is among the first to assess the long-term costs of El Niño and project losses that far exceed those estimated in previous research.
El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the natural cycle of warm and cool temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that includes its cooler counterpart, La Niña. El Niño events change weather patterns around the world, usually in the United States resulting in wetter and warmer winters on the West Coast and a milder hurricane season on the Atlantic coast. The researchers spent two years studying global economic activity in the decades following the El Niño events of 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 and found a “persistent imprint” on slowing economic growth even after more than five years. The global economy lost $4.1 trillion and $5.7 trillion, respectively, in the half-decade that followed each of these events, most of which the world’s poorest countries lived in the tropics. Researchers estimate global economic losses for the 21st century at $84 trillion as climate change potentially amplifies the frequency and severity of El Niños, even as current pledges by world leaders to reduce carbon emissions are fulfilled. The study’s authors estimate that El Nino’s forecast for 2023 alone could dampen the global economy by more than $3 trillion by 2029.
The latest climate models indicate that there is a “very high probability” of an El Niño phenomenon this year, especially between May and July 2023, with effects lasting until Christmas. Italy and other countries are already shaking from the damage caused by the heat wave.
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