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What does El Niño mean for B.C.'s watersheds?

Forget the boy who cried wolf. A different boy, El Niño, has arrived in B.C. And with some people comparing him to the monster Godzilla, or martial artist Bruce Lee, he makes wolves seem cuddly.

Sensationalism about El Niño—the warm ocean current that is back this year after a seven-year absence—seems a little silly. But El Niño, which means "the boy" in Spanish, does pack a punch. You’ve probably noticed El Niño mentioned in many of the stories about this year’s drought. So here’s a breakdown of what it is and what it means for B.C.watershed security.

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a warm ocean current, and one of the global systems that drive the world’s climate.El Niño means 'the boy'

Legend has it that many generations ago, Peruvian sailors named the periodic warm ocean current "the boy." The name stuck. El Niño’s counterpart, the periodic cool current, is La Niña, "the girl." El Niño appears at irregular intervals of two to seven years, usually swapping places with La Niña. Occasionally, though, a year is considered “neutral.”

This El Niño is predicted to cause global temperatures to rise to record highs until about 2027.

What might it mean for B.C. watersheds?

Often, when torrential rain falls on northern B.C. or the Okanagan is wracked with drought, we like to blame El Niño or La Niña. From time immemorial, these ocean currents have played a major role in driving world climate. But these days their impact is more unpredictable–and sometimes more extreme–because our watersheds are already under stress from global warming, big industry abuses, and decades of land and water mismanagement.

In B.C., weather forecasters expect that El Niño cycle’s impact will likely begin to be felt in December. The chances of a dry and warm winter are high. Less snow accumulation, and less rain, could contribute to another drought next year, with B.C. waterways continuing to suffer from low water levels and heat.

What can we do to safeguard our watershed security?

El Niño was likely a mystery to people who came before us. But now we've been warned in advance–and so we can prepare. When the World Meteorological Organization declared the arrival of El Niño earlier this year it warned governments around the world  to “mobilize preparations to limit the impacts on our health, our ecosystems and our economies.” 

The future is uncertain, but we can accomplish a lot if our governments start planning ahead and using all the tools in our toolbox to defend our watershed security. This includes rebuilding natural defenses, such as wetlands, that protect our communities from floods and droughts. This will help reinforce our food security, salmon habitat, and drinking water supplies even through hard times. However, this will take real investments into the health and security of B.C.'s freshwater sources, to make us better able to withstand El Niño and other threats to our watersheds in the months and years ahead. 

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  • Meghan Rooney
    published this page in Stories 2023-11-17 12:18:30 -0800