PETALING JAYA, June 2 — While the actual ferocity of El Nino this year is not known yet, experts say it is important to take early precautions as its impact will affect human lives, climate and socio-economic issues.
In major parts of Southeast Asia, prolonged drought associated with the strong El Nino climate system in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 brought widespread and uncontrollable forest fires, which led to severe transboundary haze.
Universiti Malaya (UM) meteorological expert Dr Sheeba Chenoli said the longest and most severe episode in 1997, resulted in more than US$4 billion (RM12.87 billion) in economic losses across Southeast Asia, including Malaysia.
“When a strong El Nino is predicted, the authorities should take steps concerned to reduce the risk of widespread fires in the region to prevent the outbreak of smoke-haze episodes,” she said.
Dr Sheeba said while the months from May to August were relatively dry due to the southwest monsoon season nationwide, the signature of El Nino this year may only become evident in July or August.
“Based on the World Meteorological Organisation’s April 15 report on the current situation and outlook for El Nino, the sea surface temperature over the western Pacific is neutral,” she said.
“However, current temperatures below the surface of the tropical Pacific have warmed to a level similar to conditions prior to the onset of an El Nino event.”
UM’s Centre for Climate Affairs director Prof Dr Khairulmaini Osman Salleh said in an El Nino event, the easterly wind was not strong enough to reach Southeast Asia, which would result in the wind turning back to South American countries and bringing heavy rainfall to the area.
He explained that during the southwest monsoon season, the dry weather contributed to increased temperatures.
“During this period, Malaysia relies on convectional rain, where land water will be heated and evaporate into the air,” he said.
“The water condenses into cloud and creates rainfalls.”
The senior lecturer said Southeast Asia was a heavily developing region, generating pollution from its economic activities.
He said the public must be proactive during dry weather by reducing the potential hazards, especially economically.
“It’s dangerous to the people when we have dry weather and pollution at the same time,” he said.
He said by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases — such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide — in our daily activities, it could reduce heat and pollution.
Universiti Malaysia Sabah senior lecturer Dr Justin Sentian there was a 59 per cent probability of countries along the Equator line being affected by El Nino.
“If the sea surface temperature increases by more than 0.5 degree Celsius and is sustained for three months, then we are in the El Nino phenomenon,” he said.
Dr Sentian, who teaches climate change and atmospheric chemistry, said although the strength of El Nino had not yet been determined, the rise in temperature would result in forest fires and haze.
“El Nino might have an impact on agriculture production,” he said.
“Studies show the phenomenon does have an effect on production after a prolonged period.”
He said the people would have to adapt themselves to the dry weather because there was not much that could be done.
The National Meteorological Department said if El Nino occurred, it would be by mid-year.
The department said in a statement on May 27 that El Nino could cause a low amount of rainfall, especially in East Malaysia, while the peninsula would be less affected.
“The public is advised not to conduct open burning, reduce outdoor activities, avoid water wastage and drink plenty of water to keep hydrated,” it said.
“We will monitor the situation from time to time and the public can contact us through our hotline number 1-300-221638 or visit the department’s website to get the latest information.”