In 1997-1998, there was a particularly severe El Niño. Seventeen years later, researches have produced evidence that the areas in Peru most affected by the weather event also ended up with shorter children.

Professor William Checkley of Johns Hopkins and his team visited 59 villages in the Tumbes region of Peru, which had received 16 times its usual rainfall during the 1997-1998 El Niño. They got data on the height and weight of 2000 children between the ages of 7-17. And the children born during 1997-1998 were, on average, .3 centimeters shorter than they should have been. Prior to the El Niño, the children of the region had been gradually gaining height as the economy grew, bringing better access to food and health services. But, after the El Niño, that trend was disrupted. In the villages most likely to have been affected, children were four centimeters shorter than the trends predicted.

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The affects were observed to have lasted through to children born three years after El Niño ended, which is where the survey's scope ended. The team also found reduced muscle mass in the children.

Checkley says that the floods resulting from the massive rainfall destroyed crops and roads, so stunted growth is probably the result of malnutrition caused by food shortages, a severe decrease in crop yield, diarrhoea due to dirty drinking water, and a lack of access to healthcare. These findings emphasize a need to warn governments when a severe El Niño is likely and for governments, once warned, to prepare for it. "The children's height was permanently marked just like tree rings indicate natural disasters," said Checkley.

Image: Sea-Surface Temperatures During the 1997 El Niño/ US Navy Fleet Numerical Meteorological and Oceanography Center

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As we've heard, the chances of us getting El Niño this year have decreased, but are still more likely than not to happen, even though the start will be delayed from a typical cycle. However, because of the delay, its strength is something of a disputed point. Best be prepared for a bad one, regardless.

[New Scientist]