Profiles of Norwegian science: Preparing for El Niño around the world

The first workshop on El Niño Ready Nations, in Bangkok in 2016.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
The first workshop on El Niño Ready Nations, in Bangkok in 2016.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Be ready for El Niño, we are told. Or, if not El Niño, then La Niña. Together with periods displaying neither El Niño nor La Niña, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern is defined.

We often hear confused and calamitous messages about dealing with ENSO. It affects ocean temperatures and weather. It is blamed for floods, droughts, and storms.

In Norway, El Niño’s main weather consequence seems to be changing atmospheric pressure over the north Atlantic Ocean. The most visible result can be a winter with more northern and eastern cold winds. Some places expect colder and drier winters, while others tend to receive more snow.

None of this would create much of a problem. While weather predictability tends to decrease during El Niño, regimes are shifting anyway due to climate change. Preparation for less seasonal weather covering wider extremes is needed.

This situation is true for ENSO affecting other countries. Reidar Staupe-Delgado, a PhD student at the University of Stavanger’s Centre for Risk Management and Societal Safety, is examining El Niño readiness in Colombia, supervised by Bjørn Ivar Kruke.

Staupe-Delgado picked Colombia mainly due to personal connections. His in-laws live in the southern town of Pasto where he has visited many times. He now speaks Spanish, making it much easier to do his research there.

His study location is Nariño, in the country’s southwest along the border with Ecuador. The landscape ranges from Pacific beaches and forests to snow-capped Andean volcanoes.

In explaining why he selected Nariño, Staupe-Delgado stated, “The impacts of El Niño are far harder to predict here than almost anywhere else in the northern Andes. I became interested in finding out how local authorities manage El Niño impacts, given the uncertainties.”

His data are mainly from interviewing disaster managers in the area. He has also collected a lot of already available information on consequences of and dealing with El Niño related impacts.

His research findings reveal major impacts of El Niño on livelihoods in rural communities. While the western side of the Andes was hit by heavier rainfall than normal during the 2015-16 El Niño, the highlands experienced drought, as did Nariño.

The affected communities, though, already experience difficulties such as poverty, poor resource distribution, violent conflict, and power imbalances. They are already vulnerable to any form of environmental changes at any time, including weather-related hazards as well as earthquakes and volcanoes.

El Niño, appearing irregularly with intervals of several years, adds another predictability complication. Planning livelihoods, including planting and harvesting, can be challenging, especially because it is not easy for many people in Nariño to access and interpret information about each year’s El Niño prospects.

Disaster managers around Nariño access forecasts disseminated through national and international meteorological agencies. This information rarely reaches the people who need it the most in advance of a crisis.

Instead, disaster managers are trained to rely on procedures that are activated after an adverse event has occurred. Once conditions produce emergencies requiring response, then contingency plans are enacted.

To improve the situation, to avoid disasters, and to encourage preventive action based on forecasts, Staupe-Delgado is developing a preparedness and readiness approach. He explains, “To me, the challenge of dealing with the uncertainty associated with El Niño events has a lot to do with its slow manifestation.”

He continues, “In my research, I argue that El Niño readiness means first addressing social issues like poverty and education. Second comes the challenge of being proactive about what information we have on impending El Niño impacts. Lastly, in my view, the current approach of reacting when things go bad should be reserved for cases where proactive approaches were inappropriate or insufficient.”

Staupe-Delgado’s PhD is co-supervised by Mickey Glantz, founder and director of the University of Colorado—Boulder’s Consortium for Capacity Building. Glantz created and runs initiatives for El Niño Ready Nations and La Niña Ready Nations.

The first meeting was held in Bangkok last year. It brought together researchers, including Staupe-Delgado, and officials studying El Niño readiness. Comparing the case studies, including Colombia, showed similarities and differences around the world for dealing with ENSO.

Strengths and gaps in science, policy, and practice were summarized. Strong connections were made with work on other climatic and environmental changes. Lessons from the El Niño and La Niña Ready Nation programs are being compiled to advise on avoiding adverse consequences from ENSO.

Colombia, Norway, and other countries can suffer from El Niño and La Niña related weather. Through readiness and vulnerability reduction, they do not have to.

This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.