- Global warming is expected to increase the frequency of El Niño and La Niña weather events in the Pacific, resulting in more powerful typhoons hitting the Philippines, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- The report’s authors warn that even under a low-carbon-emission scenario, such extreme weather events are inevitable.
- The Philippines also has to contend with warming ocean waters that threaten to kill its coral reefs and drive its once-plentiful fish stocks to cooler regions of the Pacific.
- The IPCC authors say more research is needed to better understand how ocean warming will impact the Philippines and the wider region.
MANILA — The Philippines gets hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year, according to the national weather agency. During extreme El Niño events, when the surface waters of the Pacific warm up, the number of typhoons that make landfall drops to 11 — but these storms are more intense, bringing stronger winds and larger volumes of rainfall.
The bad news for the Philippines, already one of the most vulnerable countries to severe weather events, is that both El Niño and La Niña events are set to increase in frequency, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“Extreme El Niño and La Niña events are likely to occur more frequently with global warming and are likely to intensify existing impacts, with drier or wetter responses in several regions across the globe, even at relatively low levels of future global warming,” says the report, “The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.”
El Niño and La Niña events affect different regions of the world differently. In the Philippines, the former is marked by reduced rainfall, drought, and stronger typhoons. The latter is usually associated with heavier-than-usual rainfall.
“Before the turn of the century, we have El Niño events every 10 years,” Analiza Solis of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, told Mongabay. “But now it’s becoming more frequent: we experience El Niño every five years.”
The IPCC report, a collaboration between 104 scientists from 36 countries, assesses more than 6,900 scientific journals to provide a worldwide link between global warming, oceans, and the extreme weather occurrences that have wracked the globe in recent years. It’s the last in a trilogy of climate change reports released by the IPCC — the next one will be released in 2022 — and shows that global sea level rise is accelerated by the increasing rate of ice sheet loss, continued glacier mass loss, and ocean thermal expansion.
“Although this is happening in the cryosphere” — the polar regions and glacial ice sheets such as those in the Himalayas — “there’s a big impact for all of us, especially for countries who share the same ocean,” said Lourdes Tibig, one of the lead authors of the report.
The thinning cryosphere drove a 15-centimeter (6-inch) increase in global sea level rise at the turn of the century, which is expected to reach 34 to 76 centimeters (13 to 30 inches) in a low-carbon-emission scenario, and 58 to 112 centimeters (23 to 44 inches) in a high-emission scenario.
In both scenarios, the impact is inevitable, Tibig said: “We reached the point that even under a low-emission scenario, there will be extreme El Niño and La Niña events.”
The report notes that confound hazards (a combination of factors) can lead to cascading impacts, in which an individual extreme hazard generates a sequence of events that are significantly larger than the initial impact. Haiyan, the strongest and most powerful tropical cyclone to hit the Philippines, dumping a year’s worth of rain in less than 12 hours, coincided with high tide and sea levels — a deadly combination that engulfed coastal communities in the Visayas region of the country in 2013.
“The overall finding is that anthropogenic climate change is modifying multiple climate-related events or hazards in terms of occurrence, intensity and severity,” Tibig said. “This increases the likelihood of confound events and hazards that could cause extreme disturbance on human systems.”
Localized studies on confound hazards and cascading impacts, however, are lacking in the Philippines and in the wider region, adding another obstacle to adaptation policies. Studies of extreme changes in the trade wind system and “its impacts on global variability, biogeochemistry, ecosystems as well as society” are also lacking, the report says.
Further, studies that take into consideration climate change impacts and human development and construction have yet to fully materialize. Typhoons, matched with sea level rise and seaside construction, are the root causes of widespread erosion along eight beaches in the Philippines, according to data from the environment department’s biodiversity bureau.
The country also has to contend with what the warming seas will mean for its fisheries sector, an important source of livelihood for millions of Filipinos. Given an increase in intense marine heat waves, combined with further climate warming, the IPCC report “concludes with high confidence that this will push some marine organisms, fisheries and ecosystem beyond the limits of their resilience.”
The Philippines’ marine biodiversity, at the heart of the Pacific Coral Triangle, stands to lose a lot as corals, seagrass and kelp take the brunt of the impact from rising sea levels, water temperatures, ocean acidification, and salinity.
Every square kilometer of coral reef system can supply up to 30 tons of edible and economically important fish every year, said Armida Andres, assistant director of the environment department’s biodiversity management bureau. But as corals bleach, get sick and die, fish stocks in these areas will further decline as species are pushed out by the warming temperatures.
Fishing plays a major role in the wider Southeast Asian economy. Ten countries in the region supply a quarter of the global fish production, and four of the 10 largest fish producers hail from Southeast Asia. In 2010, Indonesia alone produced 10.83 million metric tons of seafood.
“Ocean warming to this century and beyond has contributed to an over-all decrease in maximum catch potential globally,” Tibig said.
In the Philippines, 1.6 million fishers depend on the country’s coastal waters. In 1993, 80 percent of the country’s fish catch came from open waters, dropping to 50 percent in recent years.
This will go lower the more as global temperatures approach the 1.5-degree-Celsius (2.7-degree-Fahrenheit) threshold above pre-industrial levels, said Laura David of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines. “We’re not even talking of overfishing yet or ocean acidification. This is just temperature rise,” she said.
Fishers are also among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in the country. More than 1,000 municipalities in the Philippines are located in coastal areas, and at the forefront are fishers’ homes, often located within easement zones.
“How [ocean warming] impacts on the regional scale and on the Philippines … that’s where we really need more research,” Tibig said. “The projected increase in the decades to come will certainly depend on what global action we are going to do now.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Banner image of a local fisherman in the province of Batanes, a group of islands in the northernmost tip of the Philippine archipelago. Image by Leilani Chavez / Mongabay
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