Press releases

Friday 25 Sep 1998

La Nina is Upon Us

Nairobi, 25 September 1998 - According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) the killer hurricane that has devastated large areas of the Caribbean and is now heading for Florida could be linked to the weather phenomenon known as La Nina - a "cold event" which occurs as a result of the direct reversal of conditions that lead to the more widely know El-Nino.

"Hurricane Georges is a typical storm for this time of year," said Peter Usher, Chief of UNEP's Atmosphere Unit. "But, La Nina is now developing and an important feature is that it often enhances normal seasonal weather events and this is what could be happening in the Caribbean. Put another way, La Nina may be making conditions favorable for frequent and dangerous Caribbean hurricanes like Georges," he said.

Mr. Usher was speaking in advance of the release of results from the first ever "La Nina Summit", co-sponsored by UNEP and the brain-child of Michael H. Glantz, Senior Scientist of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. The Summit, "A review of the causes and consequences of cold events: A La Nina Summit", was held in Boulder from 15-17 July 1998. The purpose of the meeting, the first international gathering on this subject, was to identify what is known, not known, and what societies need to know about La Ninas, in order to forecast their onset, growth and decay several months in advance and to prepare for their societal impacts. In recent months many countries around the world, such as China and Bangladesh have experienced unusually large amounts of rainfall. Some meteorologists are attributing the torrential rains around the globe to La Nina, or "little girl" (in Spanish).

The resulting floods have had huge social, economic and environmental consequences as UNEP Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer, learnt first hand on a recent visit to China where he highlighted that environmental degradation there has been caused by such activities as deforestation and drainage of lakes and wetlands.

"For the last eighteen months or so, the talk has been only of El Nino whenever unusual and destructive weather has made the headlines, whether it has been drought and forest fires in Indonesia or floods in California," said Toepfer. "The La Nina Summit has concluded that El Nino is now over and the other side of the coin, the less frequent La Nina, is under way. If La Nina develops how we think it might then the concern is that the frequency of storms like Georges might increase," he said.

While linked, La Nina and El Nino are not equal and opposite. El-Nino is caused by abnormal warming in the Central and Eastern equatorial stretch of the Pacific oceans, whereas La-Nina comes about as a result of a below normal drop in Pacific temperatures.

The United Nations General Assembly has recognized the seriousness of El Nino and its impacts and has called for action by governments and United Nations agencies to take appropriate action. A United Nations system-wide strategy on El Nino is being developed.

In an important development to this on-going effort, it was announced yesterday that the Board of Directors of the United Nations Foundation, Inc., the public charity established by Ted Turner, Co-Chairman of Time Warner Inc., has approved $US 650,000 for the UNEP project proposal, "Reducing the Impact of Environmental Emergencies Through Early Warning and Preparedness - The Case of El Nino Southern Oscillation".

"The Turner grant is great news. Not just in our battle to confront El Nino, but the related La Nina as well," said Usher. "Improving scientific understanding is the first line of defence in dealing with these potentially devastating weather phenomena," he said.

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For more information, please contact:

Tore Brevik, Director,
UNEP Information and Public Affairs, Nairobi
Tel: +254-2-623292, Fax: +254-2-623927,
Email: tore.brevik@unep.org

Robert Bisset,
UNEP Media and Communications Officer
Tel: +254-2-623084, Fax: +254-2-623692,
E-mail: robert.bisset@unep.org.

UNEP News Release 1998/99

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