It’s been excrutiatingly hot and dry at Londolozi. We’ve been watching the afternoon skies for storms banking on the southern horizon and scanning various weather apps to see when and if the rain might come. There are probably a few smug meteorologists out there (or at least a few smug algorithms) because they called for rain over this past weekend and rain it did.
Surprise aside, it was wonderful! The landscape at the moment is more sand than grass and the sparse thickets are shadows of their former selves. Most pans have been dry and as the resident hippo population attempts to squeeze into the few deep spots left in the Sand River -fights abound. This morning, a few sunny days after the rain there is a green tinge to the bare earth and the bush is littered with muddy wallows and pans full to bursting. All because of 40mm of glorious, glorious rain. The effect should be transformative. Insects, rodents and reptiles will burst to life and our arriving migrating birds from elsewhere in Africa, Europe Asia and Antarctica will have cause to celebrate. (All migrants welcome here.)
Flowers and grasses will push through the bare earth and withered trees will stretch out some leaves. It will be an elaborate feast and in the great circle of things all are invited to the banquet. If we are lucky there will be a follow up sooner rather than later and perhaps a normal season will ensue and 600mm of rain will tally up. The long term average suggest 550mm over 17 days of rain a season – we seem to be on track, although last year we started fast and stumbled about half way to the target which explains the desperately dry conditions out there.
The forecasters are a gloomy bunch however and are predicting a drought pushed by ENSO (or the El Nino Southern Oscillation.) Traditionally, hot water in the Pacific Ocean just east of the Americas pushes further east towards Indonesia creating trade winds. It’s a pattern that drives the Asian monsoon and allows cool, deep water with lots of nutrients to well up behind it ensuring that Peruvian fisherman have full nets. The same fisherman would notice from time to time, and mostly around Christmas, that the cold water wouldn’t come and the fish would disappear – they named it the Christ Child (El Nino). During these times the trade winds would abate and often reverse leaving hot pacific waters hugging the Americas. The Asian monsoon would fail, Atlantic hurricanes would abate in favour of Pacific typhoons and from California to Chile there would be above average rainfall if not flooding. A little further afield India, Australia and Southern Africa would typically record droughts. That’s us in a nutshell.
The El Nino at present is one of the strongest on record and in Southern Africa we are bearing the consequences of fluctuating Pacific water temperatures. The South African economy has contracted this last quarter driven by a failing agricultural sector that hasn’t seen enough water. The largest man-made body of water by volume, not too far from here in relative terms, Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, is 40% full and dropping rapidly. Namibia is worried, amongst other things, that their capital Windhoek is going to run out of water and here we have the deepest dry spell in the past decade. Worrying times.
El Nino however, is not always that predictable and it can drive excess rain rather than drought. The news this last week reported floods in should-be-dry India and Australia and we’ve had an early September rain. It doesn’t baffle meteorologists but rather highlights that forecasting the weather more than a week away is a notoriously inexact science whatever the conditions.
More than half a century ago an MIT professor, Edward Norton Lorenz, was running numerical computer models in attempt to forecast weather predictions. He decided to redo a run and re-entered the numbers (although entering 0.506 instead of 0.506127) and then went for a cup of coffee. Whilst the kettle was boiling he became one of the fathers of Chaos Theory because by the time he returned, steaming cup in hand, his weather system scenario was entirely different. The upshot he realised was that the tiniest fluctuations in initial conditions (in his case 3 decimal points) can cause entirely different weather patterns. A talk delivered shortly afterwards on his findings was entitled: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? The butterfly effect was born.
In essence weather depends on an incalculable amount of variables and we’ll never know them all. Right now seagulls and butterflies flapping wings in the Pacific could be part of an initial set of conditions that may or may not trigger El Nino drought on our doorstep. We can’t calculate all those pre-conditions and therefore forecasting whether or not this El Nino will be a dry or wet phenomenon will always be imprecise. Statistics over 50 years however point towards the dry end of the scale.
The butterfly effect pops its head up in Buddhism too. There is a belief that a single kind thought or action now can have huge positive ramifications in a distant place and another time.
All of us at Londolozi need rain and so whether it’s a butterfly wing or a simple kind thought or prayer I hope it happens. Try a few kind thoughts this week and we’ll watch the skies…
Written by Tom Imrie, Londolozi Ranger