Rise of 'The Child': Will Malaysia face a turbo-charged El Nino in 2023?


The last time Malaysia experienced an extreme El Nino was in 2015/2016 when scenes like this occurred. This is a dried up Tasek Takong in Pengkalan Hulu, Perak, in April 2016. — Filepic/The Star

Folks in Malaysia have a particular way of describing the dry and hot weather in the run-up to the lunar new year: “Chinese New Year weather” – and this year, despite the heavier than usual rainfall from the effects of La Nina that will linger until next month or March, it has got so hot and dry so swiftly and suddenly that many are wondering if the El Nino weather cycle is imminent or even already here.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia) has been kept busy assuring Malaysians that despite what it looks like, it’s still too early to predict the probability of El Nino or its strength and impact on the country.

Its director-general, Muhammad Helmi Abdullah, tells The Star in a recent interview that, based on a US report issued on Jan 3, the probability of El Nino occurring beginning from July to September is around 49%.

The report comes from the Climate Prediction Center, an agency under the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

El Nino – Spanish for “the child” – is the warm phase of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (Enso) and is associated with warm ocean currents that develop in central and east-central equatorial Pacific. It also brings about the opposite effects of La Nina. While La Nina means more rain in Malaysia, the El Nino tends to bring drier and hotter weather.

El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction that is linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific region, and it can significantly influence weather patterns, ocean conditions, and marine fisheries across the globe form long periods. La Niña episodes represent periods of below-average sea surface temperatures across the east-central Equatorial Pacific, and its impacts tend to be opposite to El Nino's. — US National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationEl Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction that is linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific region, and it can significantly influence weather patterns, ocean conditions, and marine fisheries across the globe form long periods. La Niña episodes represent periods of below-average sea surface temperatures across the east-central Equatorial Pacific, and its impacts tend to be opposite to El Nino's. — US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Heat of the moment

Already, the prospect of El Nino arriving this year has some quarters hot and bothered over everything from water shortages to wildfires, increased air pollution and haze, even higher incidences of diseases such as dengue.

Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad announced that the National Action Plan on Open Burning will be activated in preparation to face the expected dry and hot weather this year, as quoted in a Malay daily.In the same statement, he also said that it is still too early to predict the probability of dry and hot weather during the south-west monsoon this year.

However, the real fear is whether climate change caused by global warming will supercharge the dry and hot conditions of El Nino to beyond the dreaded 1.5°C critical threshold. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long predicted that warming of mean temperatures to over 1.5°C will lead to, among others, extreme heatwaves, sea level rise, and a destruction of 70% to 90% of coral reefs.

So what can Malaysians expect over the next few months and, more importantly, what can we do to protect ourselves?

“It’s very likely that the next big El Nino could take us over 1.5°C,” Prof Adam Scaife from Britain’s Met Office’s told The Guardian newspaper on Jan 16.

“We know that under climate change, the impacts of El Nino events are going to get stronger, and you have to add that to the effects of climate change itself, which is growing all the time.

“You put those two things together, and we are likely to see unprecedented heatwaves during the next El Nino,” he was further quoted in the British daily.

Blowin’ hot ‘n’ cold

Both Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof Dr Fredolin Tangang and Universiti Malaya’s Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah agree that El Nino isn’t yet on Malaysia’s doorstep.

'So the net global change may be zero,' says Prof Azizan on the effects of El Nino this year. — Filepic/The Star'So the net global change may be zero,' says Prof Azizan on the effects of El Nino this year. — Filepic/The StarIn fact, explains Prof Azizan, the United States’ advisory on Enso is saying that there is a 71% chance that Malaysia will only be transiting from La Nina to an Enso-neutral state in February to April.

“Enso-neutral means that we are going to have the normal monsoon without the extra 10% to 20% [rain] above normal that we get from La Nina years like the recent 2021 to 2022 period.

“No one is predicting that we will swing into Enso, or El Nino, that soon,” says the professor who is also with the National Antarctic Research Centre.

But if the trend continues, according to a model, there will be El Nino conditions by July-August-September this year, with an average surface sea temperature (SST) anomaly of above 0.5°C in central Pacific.

At the moment, however, the world is still in the La Nina phase.

“If we do go into Enso, expect the influence to be strong in the winter of 2023, not earlier,” says Prof Azizan.

“The burning season in Indo-nesia is in July to September so it will be at the beginning [of El Nino] and I would forecast that it will not be as bad as in 2019.

“But that depends on how big the burning will be in Sumatra and Kalimantan,” he says.

Indonesia is the main source of transboundary haze from open burning and bush fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan; worryingly, the country’s national weather agency recently forecasted that Indonesia is expected to face its driest weather this year since 2019.

An Indonesian firefighter surveying burning peat land in Central Kalimantan on Sept 24, 2015. With the possibility of global warming worsening the effects of El Nino this year, Malaysia should be on high alert for similar situations. — Filepic/The StarAn Indonesian firefighter surveying burning peat land in Central Kalimantan on Sept 24, 2015. With the possibility of global warming worsening the effects of El Nino this year, Malaysia should be on high alert for similar situations. — Filepic/The StarSo far, global forecast modelling is predicting an SST anomaly of 0.5°C, which, according to Prof Azizan, is mild.

However, asked if climate change could push global heating during El Nino to above 1.5°C, he says: “Since a mild Enso is forecasted for July-September-August, I would not dare forecast such a big increase.”

He points to the massive Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991 in the Philippines which, despite spewing vast amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere, was only able to cool the planet by 0.6°C.

Enso, he says, just shifts the rainfall and climate pattern, with the central Pacific and eastern Pacific getting as dry and cool as when they are wetter and warmer during La Nina.

“So the net global change may be zero,” says Prof Azizan.

The heat is on

Prof Tangang believes water resources, health and food security could be affected during El Nino conditions. — Filepic/The StarProf Tangang believes water resources, health and food security could be affected during El Nino conditions. — Filepic/The StarMost weather models, Prof Tangang points out, have forecasted a weaker to moderate El Nino by July.

“However, in the next one to two months, it would likely become clearer – as more observation makes the accuracy of the model better – in which category this El Nino will manifest itself,” he states.

He agrees with international reports warning of the possibility that global warming is exacerbating the effects of El Nino.

“The global mean temperature is at 1.2°C higher now than pre-industrial levels. With El Nino, the mean global temperature is expected to reach beyond 1.5°C,” he says.

“However, the concerns are not just mean temperature, more important are the extremes. [During] El Nino, with the presence of global warming, the occurrences and intensity of extreme climate will be exacerbated,” says Prof Tangang, who did his PhD on the El Nino and built a model to forecast it.

The professor argues there is also increasing evidence showing that with global warming, the rhythm of the El Nino and La Nina cycles is affected as well. This is because 90% of the planet’s excess heat is absorbed by the ocean.

“For example, the current La Nina is a bit unusual as this particular one has been here for three years in a row.

“Some research also indicates that the frequency of El Nino, especially an extreme El Nino, would double by the end of the 21st century if global warming continues,” he says.

And it’s not only the frequency and intensity of El Nino that would be changing, he adds.

“The teleconnection patterns and their impact on extremes would also be changing because of the availability of moisture and warmer oceans or surrounding seas of a particular region,” he says.

Teleconnection in atmospheric science refers to climate anomalies being related to each other over large distances.

“South-East Asia and Malaysia is a good example of this,” says Prof Tangang, who has spent 20 years researching and understanding El Nino’s effects on the country and the region.

Weathering with you

Malaysia, he says, will be directly affected by drier conditions associated with the teleconnected effects of El Nino, especially should it turn out to be extreme like in 1997/1998 or 2015/2016.

“We’ll face hot and dry weather conditions. There is high risk for us as this could have an impact on water supply as we’ll have dry spells and droughts as well as forest fires and haze,” says Prof Tangang.

Haze is of special concern should El Nino continue to develop since the level of dryness and drought effects are even more pronounced in the two regions of Sumatra and Kalimantan compared with Malaysia. And that’s where the worst of the haze originates.

On Jan 16, The Star reported Prof Azizan’s warning of an anticipated spike in the number of dengue cases during El Nino years (“Dengue tends to increase during El Nino years”).

Drier conditions during Enso, he adds, also tends to manifest in less river flow on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, influencing off-season irrigation in the country’s vital padi growing areas.

“It could also impact domestic water supply since with lesser river flow, water treatment plants would not be able to operate at full capacity.

“The oil palm sector may also be water-stressed but the increased sunshine might also result in a bumper harvest,” he predicts.

It was due to the Enso in 2019 that Malaysia saw a bumper harvest of durians as well as a mass forest blooming resulting in more forest fruits for the wildlife. That year also saw an increase in dengue cases, as reported in The Star on Aug 10, 2019 (“Warm and wet weather causing dengue spike”).

“Water resources, health and food security can be badly affected during El Nino conditions,” says Prof Tangang.

He believes that longer climate forecasts of beyond one month will be useful for authorities and affected industries to plan mitigation measures.

We still don’t know if this year’s El Nino will be mild or moderate or even severe so it’s vital that Malaysians become accustomed to paying more attention to weather alerts and taking any warnings seriously. It’s been shown during the wet north-east monsoon we experienced that this works to save lives and property.

What to expect in an El Nino yearWhat to expect in an El Nino year

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