Spring/summer 2015 was mostly uncomfortable because of the unbearable heat caused by the El Niño phenomenon. It was the biggest one experienced by the country, with the World Meteorological Organization stating that 2011 to 2015 has been the warmest 5-year period thus far.
Now that spring/summer 2016 is in full swing, the question that’s top of mind, besides what fashion trends to wear, is what weather conditions to expect this season and what to do in case of emergency caused by a natural disaster.
The South African Weather Service released a report stating that the country is still experiencing drought conditions and possible water strain despite the fact that the strong El Niño event of 2015/16 is fully dissipated.
El Niño resulted in a heat wave that swept through the country and through most of the Southern African region, with devastating consequences for farmers as food growth and livestock was negatively impacted, and casualties increased as people suffered from heat exhaustion and heat strokes.
The highest temperature recorded in the country was in the town of Vredendal in the Western Cape on the 27th of October 2015. Temperatures soared to 48.4 degrees Celsius, exceeding the previous maximum temperature recorded in the same town in October 1999, which was at 42.5 degrees Celsius.
El Niño is a climate cycle in which the warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator, off the coast of South America, occurs when the normal trade winds weaken (or even reverse). The warm water which is usually found in the western Pacific then flows towards the east. The warm water displaces the cooler water that is normally found near the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean, setting off atmospheric changes that affect weather patterns in many parts of the world.
El Niños usually occur every 3 to 5 years, but may come as frequently as every 2 years or as rarely as every 7 years. Negative effects of El Niño include droughts, floods, famine and the death of aquatic life; however, the positive effects include fewer hurricanes and other tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Ocean and milder winters particularly in North America.
According to the South African Weather Service, the country will still feel the effects of last year’s El Niño for some time; however the country can expect a moderate to weak La Niña this season. La Niña is the opposite of the harsh El Niño, which results in cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. La Niña brings its own problematic weather conditions, including heavy rain resulting in floods, tropical cyclones, drier-than-normal conditions and snow and wind storms.
Therefore, South Africans can expect above-normal temperatures in the 2016 spring/summer season, with the prospect of above-normal rainfall conditions towards summer.
The country has experienced climate-induced natural disasters, namely tornadoes, floods, heat waves and most commonly, thunder and hail storms. It is best for people to have a sound knowledge of storms associated with the spring/summer season and what to do in case of emergency.
South Africa has a history of tornadoes ripping through some areas of the country. The most violent ones that have occurred were in Harrismith, Free State in 1998 where over 700 homes were destroyed, in Mount Ayliff, Eastern Cape in 1999 where over 90 percent of people lost their homes, and in Cape Town in 1999 where 5000 people were left homeless and dozens others injured.
A tornado is a violent rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm. It can therefore occur anywhere where a thunderstorm is possible; however, in South Africa, tornadoes have frequently occurred in Gauteng, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, with preference for mountainous areas.
Since tornadoes occur sporadically in South Africa, sophisticated tornado detection systems haven’t been formulated (such as ones seen in tornado-prone areas in the USA). If a tornado strikes, you should seek shelter in a structure that is sturdy enough to resist collapse. Try and stay indoors at all times and if possible, try and call emergency services. Note that phone signals might be disrupted due to phone lines and signal towers being destroyed by the tornado. Also, watch out for debris if you go outdoors after the storm as it can cause serious injury.
If you notice a dark and often greenish sky, large hail with no accompanying rain, very still air, a large approaching cloud of debris and a loud roar similar to a freight train, know that nature is warning you of an impending tornado.
The prospect of above-normal rainfall conditions predicted for this year’s summer means that we can expect flooding in some areas. Floods can be caused by either too much rain over a short period of time, continuous rain in the same area, blockages in rivers or streams, failure in dam walls or excessive release of water from dams and lakes.
Riverine floods are common as river basins fill up with lots of water and overflow in summer in the northern parts of South Africa and in winter in the southern parts. Cyclones, as in the case of cyclone Eline that hit Mozambique and some parts of South Africa in 2000, can cause flooding, while flash floods occur with heavy rainfall over a short period of time.
It is best to stay on high ground and to switch off and place all electrical equipment on high ground. Be wary of fast flowing water as you can get swept away or be struck by an object in the water. Follow media reports and advice from emergency services closely, especially for warning of flash floods which occur quickly, and for safety and shelter information. Pay special attention to children and the elderly as they are vulnerable to the effects of flooding.
South Africa’s 2015 spring/summer season was characterized of heat waves, which are periods of abnormally high temperatures that exceed the usual maximum temperatures of the spring/summer season. Cases of hospitalization and death were reported during this time as people found it unbearable to deal with the excessive heat.
When heat waves occur, it is important to keep well hydrated and to limit time spent in the sun, especially during peaks hours from midday to 3pm. Employers and employees should take note to avoid strenuous outdoor work between midday and 3pm. Make sure to wear lightweight and light-coloured clothing, and stay in a well-ventilated, preferably air conditioned room to keep cool. Take special care of young children, the elderly and pets, ensuring that they are well hydrated throughout the day.
If you or someone close to you experiences fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, delirium and excessive sweating, it could potentially be the onset of heat exhaustion or a heat stroke. It is important to move to a shaded area or to an air conditioned room, hydrate with water and call emergency services for further help.
Thunder and hail storms
Thunder storms are a natural summer phenomenon, and are often violent and accompanied by hail and lightening. They normally last for 30 minutes; however a heavy storm can last much longer and result in environmental disaster.
As always, nature provides ample warning of approaching storms. If you observe big grey cloud formations, sudden cooler-than-normal winds and hear far-off rumbling or thunder, know that a storm is under way.
It is best to suspend all outdoor activity, move pets to sheltered areas, cover vehicles and disconnect all electrical appliances. Once the storm strikes, stay indoors and steer clear of all windows, avoid using a telephone and avoid showering or bathing during the time. If you are caught outdoors when a storm strikes, take shelter under the shortest trees and stay away from high trees, poles or metal objects.
It is best to take shelter at the nearest garage station if a storm strikes while you are driving as the heavy rain can restrict visibility of the road. Also, drive slowly as the roads are slippery, and switch your hazard lights on to ensure that you are adequately visible to other motorists on the road.
Hailstorms can cause severe damage to property and can cause serious injury to people and animals. It is best to stay indoors during such a storm, and to ensure that cars are parked under cover. If you are driving, do not stop under bridges on highways as this might cause a collision due to restricted visibility. Rather drive carefully and slowly, due to slippery roads, to the nearest garage station to take cover.
South African Weather Service will communicate warnings of possible dangerous weather conditions via the media. A detailed disaster plan will be communicated to the public by weather services and the National Disaster Management Centre in the event of major natural disasters.
People can always contact emergency medical care ER24 on 084 124 in the event of an emergency.
Now that you are fully equipped to deal with the storms that the spring/summer season brings, go ahead and enjoy the warmth of the sun with your family and friends.