IT HAS been years — some experts claim decades — since global weather conditions have been so chaotic. While millions in one part of the globe suffered the quiet devastation of drought and even famine, millions elsewhere were ravaged by violent storms, heavy rains and flooding. What caused our meteorological miseries this year? And what lessons should we learn from this widespread weather disaster?
Anatomy of a Disaster
What causes leaders great concern, is that not only were those nations that are least able to cope with the ravages of climate hard hit, but most of the handful of exporting nations suffered too. The immediate effects are not fully known, but if drought continues and famine spreads in Asia and Africa, the world's misery index is sure to go up. In Asia, the most serious cases of drought have been in India and Indonesia. In the latter, drought has claimed more than 350 lives. In India, grain surpluses painstakingly built up over the past several years are being threatened as drought, hand-in-hand with famine, takes its toll in southern India. In Africa, it's not a matter of determining who has been affected by drought, but who hasn't. Few nations there managed to escape the deadly grip of drought. Even the Republic of South Africa, the unsung hero of African agriculture, has had to import 1.5 million tons of grain this year. Normally accounting for nearly 30 percent of Africa's maize production, it usually manages to export grain, principally corn (maize or "mealies"), to other African countries, despite formidable political obstacles. In the Sahelian region of West Africa, the situation seems like a continuation of a long nightmare that started in the late 1960s. In Ghana, already weighed down with two million returnees who were forced to go home by Nigeria, starvation is rampant. Bushfires destroyed 40 percent of that nation's crops. To the north, 1.6 million Mauritanians normally require 130,000 tons of grain annually to survive. This year's harvest was only 20,000 tons. And in Ivory Coast, raging fires destroyed 1.5 million acres of plantations and forest lands in addition to 65 percent of that nation's crops. At one point this year, almost all of the nations of the Southern Hemisphere — and many north of the equator — were afflicted with drought. The area is inhabited by more than one quarter of humanity. To date, the loss of life has been minimal, but the potential for famine to take a heavy toll looms on the horizon for more than 200,000 in the southern Philippines, more than a million in Indonesia, several million in Africa and — incredibly — more than 100 million in India. Additionally, the amount of property loss" worldwide through drought — caused fires has been staggering. One estimate in March of this year put the loss in Australia alone at US $7,500,000,000! Australian per capita farm income is expected to plummet from last year's US $10,500 to as low as US $2,000. Many farmers there feel that because of crop damage full recovery from the drought won't be possible for about seven years. Though Australia is expected to be able to meet its grain export obligations, it will almost certainly lose its fourth-place ranking for wheat exports to Argentina. Additionally, it will take years to rebuild herds of cattle and sheep to pre-drought levels. Neighboring New Zealand has also been hard hit by drought. Sheep ranchers there were unprepared for the length of this drought and faced a fodder shortage because of the failure to cut back on the size of their flocks earlier. Elsewhere in Oceania, Cyclone Oscar was the worst natural disaster to beset Fiji in more than 50 years. To the east of Fiji, Tahiti was struck by five cyclones this year, far above the usual one every three years normally experienced. The last of the five, Veena, was the worst cyclone to hit French Polynesia in 70 years.
From Drought to Flood
While much of Africa, South Asia, Australasia and Oceania were suffering from drought, large areas of Western Europe, parts of the United States and South America were being deluged with heavy rains and flooding. In Western Europe, rain swollen rivers caused flooding in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and West Germany. Soggy ground there also hampered planting efforts this year. In the United States earlier this year, floods inundated the lower Mississippi valley area while a combination of storms and high tides ravaged the California coastline. Heavy rains plus quick thaws of winter snow caused flooding in Utah and Colorado. Much of the fruit crops in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Arkansas was lost to a late spring freeze in a winter that didn't want to end. At the same time, planting in the Midwest was seriously delayed by unseasonal rains. In June, Mississippi had estimated that crop losses there amounted to $312 million with some 600,000 acres of land underwater. In South America, 260 died in floods in Ecuador alone. The damage there is put at more than US $200 million. Floods in Peru were not the only damage done to that nation. The important anchovy and tuna fishing industry was badly crippled because there were simply few fish to catch in the normally bountiful southeastern Pacific. They were driven off by an unusually warm offshore current. When one begins to assess the damage, the question that must be asked is how could all of this happen on such a wide scale? The answer, many meteorologists believe, lies in a cyclical change in pressure systems over the Pacific Ocean that allows a warm water current called "El Nino" to wreak havoc with our weather.
The Nature of Our Problems
There are many unusual phenomena in weather. Few are more mysterious than the effects of the warm water current in the southeastern Pacific known as El Nino — Spanish for "the boy child" — so-called because it was first observed in 1795 off the coast of Peru by fishermen around Christmas time. Scientists do not, as yet, seem to know what causes El Nino. They do know that a major contributing factor to the development of this water current is a huge atmospheric pressure and ocean temperature seesaw phenomenon called the Southern Oscillation. According to Gene Rasmusson, Chief of the Diagnostics Branch of the U.S. National Weather Service Climate Analysis Center, this weather phenomenon shifts the atmospheric pressures over the Pacific every two to seven years and enables an El Nino condition to develop. Here's how. Under normal circumstances, high pressure cells (columns of warm light air) dominate the Pacific Ocean. Together with the earth's rotation, they create a clockwise (in the Northern Hemisphere) and counterclockwise (in the Southern Hemisphere) movement of air. This movement creates the easterly (east to west) trade winds along the equator. One result of the easterlies is that the warm surface water of the eastern Pacific is blown westward making the western Pacific both slightly higher and warmer than the eastern Pacific. In addition, the Beach residences collapse, Santa Cruz, California movement of warm surface water from east to west creates an upwelling of nutrient-laden cold water in the eastern Pacific. This helps support the abundant supply of fish and marine fowl that normally inhabit the South American coastal waters. As the Pacific high pressure cells begin to break down, for reasons not yet known, low pressure cells (columns of cool dense air) take their place. This causes the easterlies to die down or even reverse direction. With no wind to push the surface water to the west, and the addition of a warm water equatorial counter current (west to east), the eastern Pacific's water level and temperature begin to rise. This Streets flooded in towns along the Rhine drives away the fish and fowl in the area. The end product is what is known as an El Nino condition. As El Nino develops, water temperatures rise significantly. In some areas of this most recent El Nino, water temperatures increased by as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. This can be compared to a pan of thick soup on low boil. As the temperature begins to rise, bubbles explode on the surface here and there. Likewise, as the hot, moisture-laden air of the eastern Pacific heats up, it spawns violent storms here and there. Now add to the scenario that as the low pressure cells develop in the Pacific, they begin to attract the jet streams toward the equator. It is easy to see how storms developing in the Pacific could be blown onto the Californian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts. Some scientists suspect that the same moisture-laden jet stream that dumped so much rain on the United States probably caused Western Europe's wet weather this year by simply pushing wet weather across the Atlantic. So how does El Nino tie in with the drought in the Southern Hemisphere? Once again we asked Mr. Rasmusson, who is one of the world's leading experts on this phenomenon. "When pressures are lower than normal over the southeastern Pacific," he noted, "they tend to be higher than normal over Australia, Indonesia, over the Indian Ocean, and perhaps over India and vice versa." Long-term studies indicate that the appearance of an El Nino has corresponded with five of India's worst droughts since 1875 and nine of Australia's since 1864.
The Lessons to Be Learned
Scientists have blamed El Nino for the unusual worldwide weather conditions that developed in 1972-73. Drought in the Soviet Union and India during that, period, according to one study, dropped world cereal grain production by 6 percent. At the same time, world cereal grain prices rose a whopping 50 percent. Many nations are having to turn to grain reserves to get by this drought. What about the next time El Nino strikes in two or seven years? What will the grain reserve situation look like then? Traditionally, nations faced with famine have been able to turn to a handful of countries blessed with an abundance of grain and other foods. That elite grain export club of a half dozen nations includes the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and Thailand — most of which now have been affected by adverse weather this year. It is indeed ironic that in the midst of great need, the biggest exporter of all, the United States, burdened by massive surpluses, has decided to take farmland out of production through a program called Payment-in-Kind (PIK) under which farmers are given credit for the value of their stored surpluses for taking land out of production. This program would leave more than 82 million acres of U.S. farmland untilled. This may save the U.S. farmer from bankruptcy, but it does not bode well for the future of poor, hungry nations. More than 100 nations depend upon the United States for grain supplies. It is a relationship that may prove to be fatal in the future. In their headlong pursuit of progress, many developing nations have sorely neglected their agricultural sectors. By concentrating on steel mills, other industrial ventures or monoculture cash crops, many nations are no longer able to feed themselves. Government agencies that regulate farm goods prices have also nearly ruined agriculture in several countries.
What caused our meteorological miseries this year? And what lessons should we learn from this widespread weather disaster?
These shortsighted policies will come back to haunt many nations in the coming years. That day of reckoning may be sooner than many would like to believe. Forecasts by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicate that world grain production is expected to drop this year by more than 100 million tons. Some meteorologists are predicting that the drought may persist in some regions for as long as seven more years. There was a time when a nation faced with the prospect of bad weather did actually do something about it. That nation was ancient Egypt, the most powerful nation of its day. Egypt, at that time, was blessed with remarkable leaders. You may recall from the biblical account how Joseph was inspired by God to interpret Pharaoh's dream. Later Joseph was put in charge of preparing the nation for the coming lean years. It was indeed a critical role. But too often we forget that Joseph was able to do what he did because he had the full support of the man above him. Pharaoh was wise enough to take good advice and to take the necessary actions to implement that advice (Gen. 41:33-40). Today we have only a few Josephs — and no Pharaohs. Leaders today make decisions, more often than not, based on what is popular, not what is right or best for the nation in the long run. They are truly the blind leading the blind (see Matthew 15:14). The Bible shows that from ancient times God has allowed — and sometimes caused-adverse weather conditions to strike nations as punishment for wrong doing (see Deuteronomy 28:22, last part, and Job 37). In I Kings 17-18, God used drought to warn an idolatrous ancient Israel to turn from its false gods. Today God is using that same instrument to warn an unrepentant humanity to turn from its modern false gods, its lusts and its greed. Jesus warned, nearly 2,000 years ago, of the signs of the end of the age. They include famines and other natural disasters (Matt. 24:3-8). Now, upset weather conditions and poor national agricultural planning are making widespread famine a real possibility for much of humanity. The weather we experienced in 1983 is merely a foretaste of disaster — a prophesied disaster for which mankind is wholly unprepared. Nevertheless, there is good reason for hope. The world will soon be given a new lease on life by divine intervention in human affairs. The return of Jesus Christ will usher in a new age. An age where nations will be blessed with wise, righteous, caring leadership. An age in which all nations will sit under their own vine and enjoy the fruits of their labor and the blessings of good weather and prosperity their Creator has in store for a repentant humanity. For a glimpse at that new coming utopia, read The Wonderful World Tomorrow - What It Will Be Like.
Role of Politics In Famine
Most of us think of famine as the result of a continuing drought, large-scale flood or some other natural disaster Few of us consider that man can be an active participant in the famine process. For example, the Nigerian Civil War (1967 to 1970) caused thousands to perish in a famine in the state of Biafra. Similar tragedies befell Uganda. But few famines in recent times can compare to the man-made Great Famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33. Ignorance of this tragic event abounds because little appeared in news accounts in the West. This was because, for the most part, the Western media in the 1930s were either enamored of the Great Soviet Experiment or under direct governmental pressure not to be critical. One might recall that the United States gave diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, the year the famine reached its height. Some reports did, however, get out. For reporters like William Henry Chamberlin, who managed to get off the beaten path of showcase tours, the famine was indeed very real. In a story that appeared in the May 29, 1934, issue of The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Chamberlin recorded the cause of this disaster. "What lay behind this major human catastrophe? It was very definitely not a result of any natural disaster, such as exceptional drought or flood, because it was the general testimony of the peasants that the harvest of 1932, although not satisfactory, would have left them enough nourishment, if the state had not swooped down on them with heavy requisitions." As punishment for Ukrainian resistance to farm collectivization, the Stalinist regime expropriated much of the Ukrain's grain. The resulting man-made food shortage caused between five and seven million deaths according to the best estimates. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Famine in the Ukraine and should stand as a warning to all people that political decisions can wreak great havoc.