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El Niņo

Increasing attention is also being paid to El Niņo as a result of a particularly severe episode during 1997-98 which caused millions of dollars worth of damage. It also gave rise to a major study by several institutions of the lessons learned from that episode and of what could be done to mitigate the effects of future El Niņos (see box)

Once burned, twice shy: the 1997-98 El Niņo

Thousands of human casualties and tens of billions of dollars in economic damage will continue to befall the world's developing countries every two to seven years until an investment is made to improve forecasting and preparedness against El Niņo, according to a new international study. The study was developed by teams of researchers working in 16 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Four United Nations organizations collaborated in the preparation of the study - UNEP, the UN University, WMO and the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction - together with the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.

More reliable El Niņo forecasts and the ability of governments to react quickly to them are critical. In the absence of such capabilities, vulnerable people, infrastructure and economies in many parts of the world will continue to suffer periodically from El Niņo events through floods, fires, drought, cyclones and outbreaks of infectious disease.

Few forecasters came close to forecasting El Niņo's onset in mid-1997 and none was able to grasp the magnitude of the 'El Niņo of the Century' until it was well under way. National and regional forecasters typically provided predictions of El Niņo impacts that in many cases were too general to be used with confidence by national and local decision-makers. Losses from the El Niņo in 1997-98 included thousands of deaths and injuries from severe storms, heat waves, fires, floods, frosts and drought. Estimates of El Niņo-related damage ranged from US$32 to US$96 billion.

Source: UNU 2001

Sea levels during the 1997-98 El Niņo

Satellite image records sea levels in the Pacific on 10 November 1997. El Niņos are characterized by higher sea levels (red and white areas) on the South American side of the southern Pacific, lower levels (blue areas) on the other side

Source: Topex/Poseidon NASA