El Niño and La Niña are the climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean that play a big role in determining our weather worldwide. Periods of El Niño and La Niña typically last 12 months, however its not an exact science and they can go on to last years. There is also no set schedule in that El Niño and La Niña alternate every two to seven years on average, that being said we experience El Niño more frequently than we do La Niña. The more recent years have showcased some of the more severe sides of both weather patterns, largely exacerbated by climate change.

El Niño, meaning ‘little boy’ in Spanish affects our weather “significantly” as trade winds weaken, and warm water is pushed back east towards the Americas. This impacts sea life due to the change in nutrients and availability of phytoplankton, also encourage more tropical species due to the warmer water. La Niña conversely means little girl in Spanish is also referred to as a ‘cold event.’ La Niña is the reason why in the last three years, we have experienced such wet, rainy weather in South Africa. This in itself is a rare event that hasn’t been experienced much since 1950, but in the three years has had some catastrophic impacts such as the flooding that took place in Durban in 2022 and claimed the lives of 448 people.

For us locally, El Niño brings with it much warmer and drier conditions which in turn in combination with climate change and global warming, leads to droughts. At the end of 2022, it seemed as if there was no definitive end to La Niña, and while that is the highest level of rainfall we’ve had in South Africa for decades, it hasn’t been without its risks as we’ve seen. “Impacts can be both negative and positive, but for me, the negative impacts, associated with flash flooding, for instance, are concerning as these could have serious economic, agricultural and health impacts,” said Dr Sarah Roffe of the Institute for Soil, Climate and Water at the Agricultural Research Council.

Fast forward six months into 2023, and signs of El Niño have been detected, and worryingly experts believe that 2024 may be the world’s hottest year yet. According to Adam Scaife, head of long-range predictions at the UK Met Office, “A new record for global temperature next year is definitely plausible. It depends how big the El Niño turns out to be – a big El Niño at the end of this year, gives a high chance that we will have a new record, global temperature in 2024.”