Witness to El Niño

This year’s El Niño is wreaking havoc on weather around the world. Here’s one eyewitness account to the effects.

Climate change is happening around the world. It’s causing everything from widespread droughts to rising sea levels, to unpredictable rainy seasons affecting crops. In the last 12 months, a weather phenomenon known as El Niño has amplified these effects and disrupted regular weather patterns worldwide.

Scientists predict an El Niño every seven to 10 years. The phenomenon can last nine to 12 months, though we can often feel the effects much longer. El Niño refers to a warming of ocean-surface temperatures. This only disrupts ocean patterns and currents, but also affects weather conditions and seasons.

As a dive professional and avid traveler, I’ve seen El Niño’s effects firsthand in the last 12 months in four very different environments: The Galapagos; Utila, in the Bay Islands of Honduras; Montreal, Canada; and Palau, in Micronesia. While individual observations are by no means to be taken as scientific facts, nonetheless, the El Niño’s influence on our planet does bear reporting. Here’s what I found.

The Galapagos

My first direct experience of El Niño occurred in September 2015 while on a rebreather liveaboard diving trip in the Galapagos. Usually in the southern islands of the Galapagos archipelago, water temperatures this time of year are a cool 59 to 66 F (15 to 19 C). On a trip in August 2013, I only lasted for 20 minutes on a dive at Cousins Rock in a 5 mm wetsuit. Fast forward two years later to a trip during El Niño and I was able to enjoy a 60-minute dive using the same wetsuit, as water temperatures were up in the 77 F (25-plus C) range. Although the dive was more comfortable, that’s a scary jump in water temperature.

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

A few months after the Galapagos trip, I saw further effects of El Niño on Utila in the Bay Islands of Honduras, where I work as a PADI Course Director and Instructor-Trainer for the Utila Dive Center. Usually during October and November we receive more rainfall and the wind changes direction. Rather than the warm summer trade-winds from the east, we receive cooler winds from the north. In October and November of 2015, the island received very little rainfall. The winds continued to blow from the east until late November/early December. Again, although the environmental effects were likely unfortunate, I was able to enjoy an extended kitesurf season, as well as a drier diving season.

Montreal, Canada

I visit my family every winter in Montreal to enjoy the Christmas and New Year’s holidays in a colder climate. In 2015, what I thought would be a cold winter turned out to be warm and mild by Canadian standards. December brought record warm temperatures across Canada’s east coast. Both Montreal and New York featured a record high on Christmas Eve as well, with flowers in bloom. Again, scientists attributed this to El Niño.

Palau, Micronesia

Jellyfish Lake in Palau is a visitor favorite. Usually home to millions of non-stinging jellyfish, Jellyfish Lake right now is nearly empty. For Palau, El Niño has meant drought. The country recorded its lowest cumulative four months of rainfall from February to May 2016 since record keeping began in 1951. In May of 2016, I led a dive trip to Chuuk Lagoon and Palau. Before departing, I received notification from the Koror state government that jellyfish numbers were at their lowest ever due to drought. The lack of rainfall meant fewer nutrients running into the lake. This, in turn, meant lower levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton, which the jellyfish eat. With less than 10 percent of the usual population and only much smaller jellyfish remaining, we struck the visit from our itinerary for 2016. When the rains do come, scientists predict the population will recover and reproduce rapidly.

As we come to almost one year after the first recorded effects of this El Niño, we hope patterns will return to normal. Recently though, I saw a Facebook post from a fellow dive professional who works in Mozambique. He wondered where all the whales they usually see this time of year had gone. Fortunately, the year after an El Niño is known as a La Niña. This phenomenon tends to bring colder currents and an almost whiplash-type effect, but only time will tell.