The Long Arms of El Nino

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Weather is enjoying celebrity-like status in the news this year.  The unusually warm weather in Vancouver has caused all kinds of problems with the outdoor Olympic events, but these abnormal conditions are not unique to British Columbia.  Many areas of Canada and the U.S. are experiencing unseasonable warmth and rain, or equally unusual cold and snow.  These strange patterns extend beyond North America as evidenced by floods and mud slides in Machu Picchu and Portugal.  The blame for this weather can be squarely attributed to El Nino once again.

El Nino emerges every 2 – 7 years and is caused by irregular warming and cooling of the Pacific Ocean west of South America.  This disturbance kicks up atmospheric conditions that give rise to unusual patterns of deluge and drought.  When El Nino delivers a large amount of rainfall to a desert area,   problems occur.  Likewise, El Nino can indirectly unleash freezing temperatures and precipitation that harm crops cultivated in areas used to a warm dry climate.

In addition to the immediate havoc caused by these weather patterns — floods, mudslides and crop failures, there are long-tem implications for public health.  As the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, flooding can cause pollution leading to food-borne illnesses that attack one’s digestive system.  Flooding also creates a moisture-rich environment ideal for mosquitoes to breed. More mosquitoes mean more carriers for vector-based diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya

Recent reports from Environmental Research show how scientists are analyzing El Nino to predict some of these outbreaks.  Their insights can help determine which vaccines travelers will need to stay healthy.  As you plan your trip, don’t just look at the weather forecast.  Do some digging into recent weather trends to uncover any problems El Nino might be drumming up, whether it’s disease, digestion or the dislodging of entire mountainsides.

This map from Wikipedia (click to enlarge) shows the weather patterns created by El Nino. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/El_Nino_regional_impacts.gif).

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