Predicted El Niño stirs memories of 1998 – 99 coastal devastation; officials worry about new development

Jul 27, 2009

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that the eastern Pacific will experience an El Niño in late 2009 and early 2010, with Ecuador and Peru bearing the brunt of the weather. El Niños are triggered by a rise in ocean surface temperatures and occur, on average, twice a decade.

In recent history Ecuador has suffered two devastating El Niños, in 1982 – 83 and again in 1998 – 99. Thousands died on Ecuador’s coast as roads, beaches and houses were washed away by floods. 

NOAA forecasts that the El Niño will peak between January and April 2010. BBC News quotes NOAA scientists as saying that it is still too early to predict the severity of the El Niño but that there is a consensus among climatology researchers on the growth and development of the phenomenon.

"The current conditions and recent trends favor the development of a weak to moderate El Niño in autumn 2009 in the equatorial Pacific with the possibility of significant strengthening after that," says the BBC, quoting a NOAA report.  

The report continues: “Conditions will be wetter in the west coast of South America, particularly in Ecuador and northern Peru. We urge officials in these areas to plan accordingly.”

Although El Niños are felt mostly intensely on the coast, they can affect the entire country. During the 1997 – 1998 El Niño, Quito experienced heavy rainfall while Cuenca endured a drought. Other areas of the Andes experienced no change from seasonal weather patterns.

Officials say they are concerned because of large-scale construction in the coastal region since the El Niño of 10 years ago. “Many Ecuadorians have forgotten about the El Niño and have built houses and condominiums on the beach since then,” says Guayaquil metererolgist Mario Santos. “In 1999, thousands of houses were washed into the ocean. People who did not experience that event have no idea what can happen.”

“Many coastal areas had no water or electricity for months. Other areas had no road access for more than a year,” Santos continued. “I worry about the resort areas that have developed since that El Niño. People living there could be in for a rude awakening.”

Photo caption: Some coastal areas, like this beach near Ayampe, had no road access for more than a year following the 1998 – 1999 El Niño.