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According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the current El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean is the strongest since 1997/98, and is potentially one of the strongest since 1950. It could, therefore, have significant effects on countries that produce soft commodities, such as coffee and cocoa.

El Niño refers to the occasional dysfunction of the weather patterns centred in the equatorial Pacific regions, and is caused by the abnormal warming of coastal waters off Peru and Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the irregular cooling of the coastal waters in the western Pacific Ocean. It has a significant impact on rainfall patterns worldwide, which is already being felt in the severe drought conditions affecting Australia, heavy rainfall in eastern Africa and flooding in South America. The phenomenon is likely to continue at least until the end of this year.

In a September statement, the WMO said a “mature and strong El Niño” is now present in the tropical Pacific Ocean and is likely to strengthen further. This year’s El Niño event is potentially among the four strongest events since 1950, it said. The peak strength of this El Niño is expected sometime during October 2015 to January 2016. “Its impacts are already evident in some regions and will be more apparent for at least the next 4-8 months,” said the WMO.

The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is one of the main drivers of the climate system and contributes to extreme events like droughts and flooding in different parts of the world. Globally, it has a warming influence on average temperatures. Ahead of the full onset of this year’s El Niño, 2014 was nominally the warmest on record, with record ocean heat and high land-surface temperatures. This trend has continued in the first seven months of 2015, which have witnessed many extreme events ranging from devastating flooding to extreme heat and drought. David Carlson, Director of the WMO co-sponsored World Climate Research Programme, said that the 2015 El Niño is the first to take place since the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and snow cover. “The last big El Niño was 1997-1998. The planet has changed a lot in 15 years,” said Mr Carlson. “We have had years of record Arctic sea ice minimum. We have lost a massive area of northern hemisphere snow cover, probably by more than 1 million square kilometres in the past 15 years. We are working on a different planet and we fully do not understand the new patterns emerging.” He said the 2015 El Niño is unique because of the unprecedented combination of the Equatorial influence of El Niño, and the Arctic influence of low sea ice and snow cover in place at the same time. “This is a new planet. Will the two patterns reinforce each other or cancel each other? We have no precedent. Climate change is increasingly going to put us in this situation. We don’t have a previous event like this,” he said.

Typically, because of the warm air is over the eastern pacific, there are drier conditions over Australia, Indonesia and Southeast and South Asia. Many countries in the region are actively preparing for drought. This year’s El Niño has also impacted the South Asian monsoon. The India Meteorological Department, for the first time in its history, gave a public drought forecast predicting monsoon rainfall 12 percent below normal, in which the early predictions of El Niño played a crucial role. Very often during an El Niño, the Horn of Africa gets increased precipitation and sometimes flooding, whereas in southern Africa there are often get drier conditions. From Central America to the northeastern parts of South America it is often dry. The western coast of South America is more likely to be wetter than normal.

The International Coffee Organization (ICO) said that, although it is too early to evaluate its impact in coffee exporting countries, “we should continue to expect human and ecological consequences caused by climate fluctuations, as well as an impact on infrastructure in a number of producing regions.” For more information about the current El Niño – and the effects that it might have on the coffee and cocoa sectors – see the forthcoming November 2015 issue of Coffee & Cocoa International.

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