El Niño can have a devastating impact on the world economy, scientists reported Thursday.
In the years it forms, El Niño triggers wide-ranging changes in weather and climate patterns that result in a potpourri of disasters, including devastating floods, crop-killing droughts, plummeting fish populations and an uptick in tropical diseases worldwide, according to a study published Thursday.
The study is among the first to look at the long-term costs of El Niño, and it projects losses that far exceed those estimated by previous research.
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Costs in the trillions of dollars
The economic cost of the natural climate pattern can soar into the trillions of dollars around the globe: The 1982-83 El Niño led to $4.1 trillion in global income losses, while the 1997-98 El Niño cost about $5.7 trillion, the study suggests. These figures are huge, and come close to the total economic cost of the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008.
Some of the world’s poorest nations take the hardest hit during and after El Niños, and climate change will only exacerbate the problems those countries face, the study authors say.
Researchers found that El Niño was particularly hard on nations such as Peru and other tropical countries.
“We can say with certainty that societies and economies absolutely do not just take a hit and recover,” said study lead author Christopher Callahan, a doctoral candidate in geography at Dartmouth University, adding that the data suggested that economic downturns after El Niño could last 14 years or more.
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What is El Niño?
El Niño is a natural climate pattern where seawater in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. El Niño and its counterpart, La Niña, can influence storms and weather patterns around the world, including hurricanes.
El Niños occur on average about every three to five years and vary in strength, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The last strong El Niño was in 2016.
Here in the United States, El Niños typically result in wetter, warmer winters for the West Coast and a milder hurricane season for the Atlantic seaboard.
Worldwide, typical El Niño impacts:
- There is an enhanced probability of below-normal precipitation during India’s monsoon season.
- Eastern Australia and southern Africa see a greater probability of below-normal rainfall.
- East Africa and the west coast of South America are more likely to have above-normal precipitation.
How much could the next El Niño cost?
Researchers estimate that the potentially big El Niño predicted for 2023 alone could hold the global economy back by as much as $3 trillion by 2029.
“The deck is potentially stacked for a really big El Niño,” Callahan said. “Our results suggest that there will likely be a major economic toll that depresses economic growth in tropical countries for potentially up to a decade. The result could be trillions of dollars in productivity lost globally relative to a world without this El Niño.”
Marshall Burke, an economist and environmental policy professor at Stanford University, who was not involved in the study, said the Dartmouth scientists “make a compelling case that this has really slowed growth in severely affected countries like Peru, and resulted in trillions of (dollars) of lost economic output around the world.”
“This paper has certainly made me much more worried about the upcoming and likely large El Niño,” Burke said.
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What about climate change?
When it comes to climate change, world leaders and the public rightfully focus on the ongoing rise in the global average temperature, said study co-author Justin Mankin, a Dartmouth University geography professor. “But if you’re estimating the costs of global warming without considering El Niño, then you are dramatically underestimating the costs of global warming,” he said.
Many climate models also predict climate warming will increase El Niño intensity and frequency and have potentially devastating socioeconomic consequences.
“Our welfare is affected by our global economy, and our global economy is tied to the climate,” Mankin said. “When you ask how costly climate change is, you can start by asking how costly climate variation is.
“We’re showing here that such variation, as embodied in El Niño, is incredibly costly and stagnates growth for years, which led us to cost estimates that are orders of magnitudes larger than previous ones.”
Thursday’s study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Contributing: The Associated Press