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El Nino will stress test climate preparedness


Canada has been on fire for months. Abnormally dry and hot weather is fuelling hundreds of wildfires across the country, as Canada sees its worst wildfire season in recorded history.[1]Satellite images showed smoke from the wildfires is even reaching Europe.[2]The Canadian wildfires, which began in March, have since released 160 million tonnes of carbon stored in forests back into the atmosphere.[3]

Canada wildfire map (Image source: NASA)


Canadian wildfires blanket New York in haze (Image source: WHYY)


Unfortunately, this year is expected to worsen as the world enters an El Nino phase, with a possibility of developing into a strong El Nino by the end of the year.[4]El Nino is a period, lasting typically for 9 to 12 months, where trade winds weaken and upwelling is supressed. This leads to unusually warm ocean temperatures along the equatorial Pacific Ocean and above average temperatures around the world. In addition to more intense heatwaves, southeast Asia is expecting more drought and possible wildfires.[5]For us here in Hong Kong, we may be seeing stronger typhoons, supercharged by warmer surface waters.[6]



The three phases of El Nino-Southern Oscillation (Image source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

But that is not all. Combined with worsening climate change, the consequences will be amplified. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had warned that greenhouse gases and El Nino combined will be setting temperature records and are likely to breach the 1.5°C threshold briefly within the next five years.[7]Just a couple weeks ago, Beijing had to raise its most severe weather warning, when the capital city experienced temperatures of above 40°C over three consecutive days since records started in 1951.[8] In fact, for the past three years, the full extent of global warming had been masked by the cooling effects of La Nina—the counterpart of El Nino—even though the world still experienced multiple extreme heat events and nearly broke global temperature records.[9]

Max temperature recordings in Beijing on June 23 (Image source: Beijing Meteorological Service)


Besides the direct impact, the scorching heat is also straining power grids, as more people turn to air conditioners to cool down.[10] Car owners are locked out of their vehicles as batteries lose charge and die faster when hot.[11]Foodstuffs are more likely to spoil sooner from heat exposure as well during transport between distribution to retail and retail to households. The list goes on.

Global projection for air conditioning demand (Image source: IEA)


To avoid the worst of climate change, we must act now to reduce emissions. But even if we stop emitting more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere today, the Earth will still take decades for temperatures to stabilise. Governments around the world must prepare cities to deal with the climate consequences. This include expanding green infrastructure and building climate shelters to give citizens places to rest and cool down,[12]adopting passive cooling measures (i.e., reflective surfaces, natural ventilation) to reduce air conditioning needs,[13]giving teeth to policies protecting the workforce from heatwaves and other extreme weather,[14]increasing public awareness of climate change and promote the use of adaptive measures, and more.

Mitigation measures for urban heat island (Image Source: Matsumoto and Kataoka)


COP28 will take place from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. While there are worries that having a major oil exporter as the host could upend this coming round of climate talks, it would be good to see some ambitious climate pledges after last year’s more tepid outcomes.

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