Pretoria - South Africa is experiencing the hottest and most extreme weather conditions since the last El Niño phenomenon hit the country in 1997 and 1998, and the heat conditions could get worse, weather experts warned on Tuesday.
Scientists from the South African Weather Service, the CSIR, universities and other organisations on Tuesday also said it was the hottest in the 150-year history of weather measurement.
“It is the warmest year measured yet,” Dr Francois Engelbrecht of the CSIR said.
The increase in temperature, he said, was caused by global warming and the El Niño phenomenon, both conditions which resulted in severe weather conditions. “The temperatures may well increase because of climate changes,” he said.
Engelbrecht said the country now had to deal with the effects of an increased warming-up of the temperature in the Pacific Ocean, which were normally 0.01 percent but had gone up by and beyond the 0.1 percent threshold.
“The 1 percent critical threshold is being exceeded,” he said, adding that the current conditions were comparable only to the El Niño phenomenon of 1997 and 1998, which also impacted severely on the country.
Engelbrecht and other scientists described the El Niño effect as the warming up of the Pacific Ocean above its normal temperatures, saying it very often resulted in severe weather conditions.
“Every two to seven years the Pacific Ocean warms up. We are in such an event now, and the ocean temperatures are warmer than normal,” a statement produced by the summit read.
They said a smaller El Niño had been experienced in the summer of 2014/15, picked up by the drought index for South Africa, and which indicated mild to severe drought conditions over most of the country.
“Last season’s summer drought was mild to severe as measured by decreased rainfall relative to the long-term average; the largest since 1995 for southern Africa as a whole,” the statement said.
The experts explained that the current drought was the result of last year’s weather conditions, and the effects of this year’s heat conditions would still be felt next year.
Read: Climate of change brews
Science, they said, could not tell how severe the effects would be next year, but they could say with confidence that by the time summer and autumn arrived temperatures would have soared beyond the 48.3°C recorded in parts of the country last year.
Meteorologist Mnikeli Ndabambi said: “That temperature was recorded in Vredendal in October last year and it was not only the hottest place in the country at that time, but it was the hottest place in the world.
“So if the heatwave persists, our observations are that it will pick up to the extreme,” he said.
The heavy rains which fell in most of the city and parts of Gauteng on Monday did not signal a break in the drought, he said. “They were localised rains which were more serious in some parts and less serious in others.”
Ndabambi said the dry period did not mean there would be no rain – there will be rain and thunderstorms this season, but it would be below-normal rainfall – and the expected seasonal rains would not bring a shift in the El Niño weather balance.
The current drought, climate expert Dr Mathieu Rouault said, had not reached its most severe form, but has so far hit the agricultural sector leaving plants unable to suck the moisture out of the soil.
“This is the worst drought since 1995,” he said, adding that eight out of 10 drought situations had occurred during an El Niño phase.
WHAT IS THE PHENOMENON?
* It is one of the biggest events ever observed.
* Has established in the Pacific Ocean exerting an invariable impact on global weather.
* It impacts negatively on the availability of water in South Africa.
* It is a recurring natural climate phenomenon, and while largely unpredictable over long time ranges, it occurs relatively regularly every two to seven years
* It comprises an anomalous relative warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean and cooling of the western Pacific Ocean due to a change in wind patterns.
* Has an opposite state called La Niña and together they are referred to as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (Enso).
* Enso states can last between one to two years at a time, the intensity of each state varies.
* El Niño is associated with drought conditions in southern Africa, the size, duration and intensity is however, not well correlated with the intensity and spatial extent of the drought.
* As a result a big El Niño does not necessarily result in a big regional impact.
El Niño Southern Africa is suffering the effects of the 2015 El Niño, a relatively large event, comparable to the very significant 1997/8 event.
* The region also had a smaller El Niño event in the summer of 2014/15.