El Nino and the Weather; Impact on the Haze and beyond

The view form our balcony in recent days has looked like this
The view from our balcony in recent days

“El Nino and the Weather” sounds like the title of a rock band or an academic book however for the crew of Temptress of Down it is the immediate and longer term impacts El Nino is having that gives cause for concern. Singapore has for weeks been covered in haze. Haze is a rather tame even romantic sounding name for wood smoke pollution drifting in from Indonesia. Wood smoke from land clearance by burning in order to produce oil palm to serve the western world’s desire for cheap food. The two main areas are alight Borneo and Sumatra both to the south of the Malaysian Peninsula and both at this time of year upwind of Singapore.

Just one example of how varied conditions can be: Last night we left our local steakhouse Jack’s Place just after 8pm to discover that air that had been acceptable on the five minute stroll over to Great World City shopping mall an hour or so earlier had acquired a distinct wood smoke tang. You could see the haze in the flood lights in the flower beads around the shopping centre. By the time we arrived at our apartment block both Kevin & I were gasping for breath and headachy. Unfortunately the monitoring and reporting systems don’t react to such localised concentrations; my phone apps (SG Air and SG Air Quality) were showing the pollution in the low end of unhealthy where as my nose and eyes could sense the dense haze.

3hr PSI
Singapore’s 3 hourly Average PSI – Oct 19 -20 NB: yesterday at 8pm when we experienced severe haze, overall Singapore was relatively haze free

Though the concentration of particles (expressed as PSI) across the island of Singapore has varied over time with the strength and direction of the South East Monsoon, generally in recent weeks the particulate matter has been in what the government directs is unhealthy quantities (a PSI of 100 – 200). There have been few days when the measurements have dropped below 100 (moderate pollution) and some when it has risen into the 200’s extremely unhealthy. One key element we follow are the PM2.5 hourly measurements. These tiny particles measure under 2.5 micrometers, 100 times smaller than the human hair and can enter the lungs causing a number of health problems and are especially problematic for those with existing conditions like asthma.

On Sumatra and Borneo the PSI is in the thousands causing breathing difficulties for the very young and the very old. Continued exposure to a PSI of over 100 can lead to cardiovascular disease and more – it has been equated with asbestosis in some reports I’ve read. So the advice is to stay indoors, if you do go out avoid strenuous activity that will cause you to breath harder and deeper than normal and wear an effective face mask that will filter out the tiny smoke particles.

Last October when we arrived in Singapore the transitional period between the SW Monsoon and the NE Monsoon was well underway with tremendous thunderstorms and downpours almost every day. This year hardly a drop of rain has fallen and the storms have been markedly absent. The grassy areas are looking brown and trees are shedding leaves. Where is the rain?

El Nino is a warming of the Eastern Pacific Ocean to above average temperatures, it doesn’t happen every year but this year the effect is stronger than most. This warm water pushed west by the Eastern winds of the high that sits just above the Equator and as it evaporates the warm moister than usual air travels west providing ideal conditions for typhoons. Typhoons can happen in the Pacific region most months of the year but during El Nino the shear amount of fuel for them in terms of warm moist air means there are far more and far bigger storms.

Looks like a foggy day in the English channel
Looks like a foggy day in the English channel

This year has been no exception and countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan have been battered. The rain that would in more average years is wrapped up in those typhoons and fails to make the passage to Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia are all suffering from a prolonged drought as a result. And there is little sign of rain to help dowse the burning peat lands in Indonesia so for now we suffer the haze whilst weather scientists offer the gloomy prediction that it could be December or even early 2016 before the NE Monsoon puts in an appearance which though it might not bring the rains needed will at least drive the haze southwards.

For Temptress and her crew though the impact the El Nino phenomena has on weather in the Pacific during 2016 is of even more importance. More on this in our next blog meanwhile for those of you who care about the impact that clearing land by for oil palm cultivation by burning has on not just the human population of SE Asia but also threatened species like Orangutans here is some further sobering reading plus some interesting articles on El Nino:

  1. A good pictorial description of what causes El Nino: http://www.globalweatheroscillations.com/#!copy-of-el-nino/c193z
  2. Singapore’s Weather Service assessment of the regional drought October 2015: http://www.weather.gov.sg/climate-el-la/
  3. Accuweather’s article on the impact of El Nino from super typhoons in the Pacific to snow in Turkey and Russia: http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/asia-fall-forecast-2015-el-nino-typhoons-india-drought/52075743
  4. A gloomy prediction on the impact of haze on humans from Al Jazeera: http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/asia-fall-forecast-2015-el-nino-typhoons-india-drought/52075743
  5. We breathe what we buy – join the WWF campaign against the Haze and stop buying unsustainable palm oil and wood pulp products: https://webreathewhatwebuy.com/
  6. Read about efforts to rescue endangered Orangutans from the fires: http://orangutan.or.id/