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The Impact of Climate Change on the El Niño Weather Phenomenon and the Agricultural Sector of South Africa

Updated on November 7, 2017

The Impact of Climate Change on the El Niño Weather Phenomenon and the Agricultural Sector of South Africa

Few people would challenge the observation that 2017 is the third of three consecutive years with record-breaking temperatures globally. In many parts of the world this may have meant milder winters but for many countries, particularly those in Southern Africa, higher temperatures and lower rainfall have negatively impacted the industries supremely sensitive to climate changes. Many experts including the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) believe that this warming is a long-term trend evidenced by the average temperatures measured for 2017, as much as 1.1°C above the pre-industrial era (WMO statement dated 6 November 2017). This is as a result of an ongoing powerful El Niño. According to a weather report from the WMO about climate change, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, the average temperature of the atmosphere could rise more than 4°C by the end of the 21st century. That is a terrifying possibility with disastrous consequences for most countries. Extreme events such as hurricanes and drought will impact food production globally, in turn affecting the most vulnerable countries and millions of people.

Drought in South Africa

Nowhere could this be more apparent than in South Africa, the southernmost country at the tip of Africa with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It has several distinct ecosystems, from dry arid land, forests closer to the coast and the Mediterranean like climate of Cape Town, one of the most popular tourist destinations for foreign travellers to the country. It is roughly equivalent in size to Columbia and one-eighth the size of the US. South Africa is experiencing the after-effects of a devastating drought in the 2015 to 2016 period. Whilst the greater South Africa has had some rain over the subsequent summer seasons, the Cape Province continues to be affected by an intensifying localised drought. In June 2017, Knysna experienced devastating fires as a result of the dry conditions. Dams have sunk to the lowest level (36.5% as of 31 October 2017 courtesy of Agri SA) in decades and strict water restrictions have been put in place to preserve the remaining water.

The drought that struck in 2015 – 2016 was due to poor rainfall combined with higher than average temperatures (this situation persists in the Cape as mentioned earlier). The average rainfall for South Africa is 608 mm per year but in 2015 the average was 403 mm, a pattern that continued into 2016 and is yet to abate in the Cape. The El Niño Southern Oscillation weather phenomenon (ENSO), is a natural climate phenomenon that occurs every few years and is the result of warmer Pacific surface water which changes ocean currents and winds, releasing heat into the atmosphere (Oxfam 2016). El Niño has been blamed for the current weather patterns. It is responsible for a large part of the variation in weather in the global climate from year to year, but according to a recent study conducted by scientists with the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative, climate change was identified as the dominant cause of 2015’s record temperatures (Climate Nexus 2015). Surface temperatures are on track to be among the highest recorded, in 2017. These scientists determined that 1.0° of the 1.89°C global temperature anomaly, as measured against the 1850-1900 preindustrial baseline, is due to anthropogenic climate change. Skeptical Science produced an article on ‘Global Warming and the El Niño Southern Oscillation’ measuring the Southern Oscillation Index against other temperature trends. In the short term there is a strong correlation between the SOI and global temperatures but in the long term these types of cyclical factors average to a zero net effect and cannot explain the global warming trend. Evidence suggests that there is a cause-effect relationship between ENSO and climate change with global warming amplifying the effects of ENSO and increasing the probability of super El Niño’s developing.

Impact on Agriculture

It can be assumed that climate change is responsible for the severity of the El Niño that has wreaked havoc on South Africa’s agricultural sector. A report compiled by a South African agricultural organization, Agri SA elaborates on the prevailing climate conditions that have substantially reduced soil moisture, making it harder for farmers to plant and grow crops such as wheat, sugar cane and maize, known as corn elsewhere in the world. High temperatures have also affected pollination, an essential process in agriculture, further exacerbating the problem. Farmers need to grow and harvest 11.25 million tons of maize each year just to supply the South African market. In 2015 the total maize produced was 9.9 million tons 12% less than what is needed. The continuing dry conditions in 2016 meant that 25% less maize was planted for 2017 with an estimated yield of 7.1 million tons, 43% lower than the 10-year average. Approximately 15,000 farmers (majority emerging commercial) surrendered their farms, as they could no longer make their payments to financial institutions. However, the outlook for 2017/2018 is positive provided that recent rainfall patterns remain consistent.

The Road Ahead

Ultimately all the data analysis and observations cannot conceal the facts: Global warming is heating our oceans and intensifying and amplifying the effects of El Niño’s and other weather phenomena. The phenomenon of El Niño has faded but the effects thereof will continue to be felt well into 2017 and 2018. If the upward temperature trend continues, drought conditions as experienced by South Africans could become the new standard and occur far more often than every 5 to 7 years.


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