El Nino Leads to More Problems Than Storms

Incidentally, Bangladesh seems to get the worst of everything these days. Bangladesh, much of which is barely above sea level, is frequently devastated by monsoons, especially during an El Niño. And the World Health Organization warned recently that the country’s drinking water is so contaminated with naturally-occurring arsenic that Bangladesh is “grappling with the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”

The organization warned in a recent report that 35 to 77 million people of the country’s total population of 125 million are at risk from arsenic in their drinking water, which can cause cancer and other deadly diseases. Allan H. Smith, professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the organization’s report, labeled it a potential epidemic that could make disasters like the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant pale by comparison.

So Bangladesh has more to worry about than El Niño, as deadly as that may be.

Meanwhile, other researchers are finding that El Niño strikes right at the heart of the marine ecosystem, which supplies so much of the world with its basic food resources.

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, have confirmed what many expected, that the warmer waters of El Niño reduce the population of phytoplankton, the tiny plant-like organisms that form the bottom of the food chain upon which all other marine organisms depend.

Thinning a Food Source

By analyzing high-resolution satellite images, Mati Kahru and Greg Mitchell of Scripps found the warmer waters of an El Niño, which are lower in nutrients, severely reduces the amount of phytoplankton. It also causes the resource to be distributed more evenly, wiping out the concentrations upon which so many different types of fish feed.

Deprived of that resource, millions of fish move north or south in search of food, where many of them die because the water is too cold for them to survive, or they starve.

The forced migration can also have a ripple effect. Scientists have found that mackerel migrated farther north than usual, feeding on juvenile salmon and thus further depleting this important and troubled resource.

Other scientists have found evidence of the ripple effect even in sea birds. Bird feces are rich in guano, a natural fertilizer that is essential for agriculture. During a strong El Niño, many sea birds migrate to the wrong areas and die, but the scale of this problem is not yet understood.

There is also much evidence that El Niño is contributing to the death of coral reefs around the world, depriving marine creatures of a nutrient-rich habitat. Pollution and scavenging also play a role in this, as in many other cases of resource destruction.

The growing body of evidence doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end. But it does remind us, once again, of the complexity of the world in which we live.

We can’t shut off El Niño. So we better learn how to live with it.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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