RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've heard about massive flooding in Paraguay, drought in Ethiopia, all linked to El Nino. It crops up in the Pacific every few years and alters world weather patterns. This current El Nino is one of the strongest on record and is expected to go on for months. But as NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports, there's also an opportunity here.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The last time the planet was hit by an El Nino this big was in 1997. That event was particularly devastating to poorer countries. Lisa Goddard is a climate scientist at Columbia University.
LISA GODDARD: A lot of people were looking around at the climate impacts and starting to create lists of how expensive that El Nino event was - how much damage it was costing.
AIZENMAN: There was a lot to add up. The tab reached into the tens of billions of dollars.
LISA GODDARD: The conclusion that was coming out was that El Nino events were very costly, were very damaging, were very extreme.
AIZENMAN: But Goddard, who heads Columbia's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, had her doubts. After all, she notes ...
LISA GODDARD: ...Different parts of the world experience extreme climate in any year.
AIZENMAN: Were extreme weather disasters really more likely to occur across the world during El Nino years?
LISA GODDARD: And what we found was that they weren't.
AIZENMAN: In fact, what Goddard and a colleague concluded, after an extensive review of the data, is that El Nino-produced disasters are more predictable. See, scientists know an El Nino is coming when the waters of the Pacific become unusually warm. That warming...
LISA GODDARD: ...It reorganizes the seasonal pattern of weather, like, where the jet stream is carrying the storms.
AIZENMAN: That signature pattern of an El Nino has been well documented. And the stronger the El Nino, the more pronounced the effect, and therefore, the more accurately scientists can predict the impacts. So this current, extra powerful El Nino has offered governments and aid agencies a rare opportunity to prepare. Take the United Nations World Food Programme. Richard Choularton is overseeing a groundbreaking shift there. They're monitoring the El Nino forecasts, identifying places where a natural disaster might hit and sending in aid money proactively. For example...
RICHARD CHOULARTON: ...If you need a certain amount of rainfall for a maize crop to grow and the forecast says there's a 60 percent chance that you'll get less than that, we trigger funding for communities to do things that will help them deal with a drought.
AIZENMAN: Now in this scenario, that would mean there's a 40 percent chance there won't be a drought. The WFP could end up spending money that wasn't needed, but Choularton says it's worth the risk because preventive aid is so much cheaper than emergency aid.
CHOULARTON: We know that we'll save money in the long run.
AIZENMAN: WFP is setting up this pilot effort in five countries where El Nino-related weather could create food shortages in the coming months.
CHOULARTON: That's never happened before. So it really is changing the fundamental way we do our work from one which is reactive to one which is anticipatory.
AIZENMAN: Still, forewarned hasn't always meant forearmed in this scenario, especially in Indonesia. Every fall, everyone from small farmers to big companies set fires for palm oil production there, but this past year, the El Nino created extra dry conditions. Any fires were bound to get out of control, and the government did spread the word.
RIZALDI BOER: Of course, they tell the people about the situation.
AIZENMAN: Rizaldi Boer person is with Indonesia's Bogor Agricultural University. He says in many cases, the warnings only encouraged people to set fires.
BOER: Because fire will be easily burn, and they can clean the land very quick. They really make use of the situation to get more land.
AIZENMAN: The result? Fires that raged for weeks, choking the region with smoke, sickening hundreds of thousands. Boer says the solution is to give people a better reason not to set fires like offering financial rewards to villages that resist the temptation. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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