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Is El Niño in Our Future?

April 30, 2014

Rainy dayI took a meteorology class in college and ever since then my friends and family have teased me about being a bit of a weather nerd. I can’t remember all of the cloud types or everything we learned about atmospheric pressure, but when a weather-related topic comes up in the news it piques my interest. There’s been a lot of chatter most recently about an El Niño that may be forming in the oceans, which could affect our weather into next winter. This has been especially interesting to the insurance industry, as El Niño years tend to bring severe weather patterns including droughts that, historically, have caused some catastrophic crop failure, as well as massive hurricanes and flooding in the southeastern US.

What is El Niño? Literally, the translation from Spanish means “the little boy.” Ocean currents tend to run warmer than average, cooler than average, or neutral (average), and an El Niño year is one where the ocean currents around the equatorial Pacific run warm. In contrast, La Niña (literally “the little girl”) years are when those same ocean currents run cooler than normal. Ten of the last 40 years have been El Niño years, and the worst recorded and most well-researched El Niño during that time was the 1997-1998 season.

The effects of El Niño are still being studied, but research points to a correlation between strong El Niño weather and an increase in cholera cases in Bangladesh. El Niño’s also tend to cause more violent monsoon and storm seasons, strong hurricanes in the Atlantic, and the possibility of droughts in places like Mexico and Australia.

As for insurers, it will be important to keep an eye on the trend. Stronger storms in the Atlantic and possibly droughts in the northern US can cause a multitude of varying risk. The 1997-98 El Niño season is blamed for an estimated $10 billion in crop damages due to droughts.

There’s no telling at this point how strong of an El Niño we may see this year, as it’s too early in the season to be certain. Ocean temperature increases, like scientists are seeing currently, don’t always correlate to an El Niño season. In fact, several measures are used in predicting an El Niño season including monitoring the trade winds, a rise in surface pressure near and over the Indian Ocean, a fall in air pressure in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, and more. In 2012 the ocean temperatures warmed, but it ended up being a neutral year.

Article by: Kristen Skinner

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