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China is the largest developing country in the world with a vast territory and nearly 1.3 billion people. Great differences in climate are found from region to region owing to China's extensive territory and complex topography: tropical, subtropical, temperate, plateau and alpine. The major part of China is under the influence of the Asia monsoon. Natural hazards, especially meteorological hazards, such as torrential rains, floods, droughts, typhoons, hail and frost episodes, occur frequently. Drought, flood, typhoon, frost, hail and chill damages are the main climatic hazards that have substantial influence on the country’s social and economic stability.
In 1997, people in northern China experienced a very hot and dry summer season. During the 1997-98 winter, extraordinarily heavy snow fell over the Tibetan Plateau and caused great losses of human lives and property. In the summer of 1998, a great flood occurred in the Yangtze River basin, which was ranked as the second greatest flood during the past fifty years. Meanwhile, the greatest flood in the past fifty years occurred in Songhua river basin in northeastern China. Both floods caused total damages of over 350 billion yuan (RMB) (45 billion USD) in property and an estimated 3,000 deaths.
After these natural disasters, the causes were investigated thoroughly by a team led by the Ministry of Water Conservancy with officials from different government agencies and scientists from various research institutions. The El Niño event was considered as the one of major factors to be included in the forecasting process in that year. The preliminary results, however, showed that although El Niño has its most significant impacts on climate in tropical regions, its impacts on climate weaken beyond this region. In China, most forecasters believe that El Niño is a strong signal that could be used for predictions of climate anomaly in China in the future. There are mechanisms that are not fully understood about the relationship between El Niño and China’s climate hazards.
Historically, scientific research in China on El Niño advanced in four stages. The first stage occurred before 1950. At this stage, no studies were done on El Niño and the Southern Oscillation (SO) and their impact on China because of the weakness of Chinese science and technology as a whole, the lack of reliable scientific observation instruments, and difficulties to obtain any of the limited number of scientific reports and information about El Niño and the SO from other countries. Research topics such as interannual variability of the Asia monsoon and atmospheric circulation, or the interactions of the atmosphere and the ocean were not addressed at that time.
The second stage occurred from 1950 to 1980. Beginning in the 1950s, anomalous sea surface temperature (SST) variations (which were related with variations of El Niño and the Southern Oscillation - a relationship still not known in China at that time) and their relationship with global and regional atmospheric circulation began to attract attention from China’s research community. From 1980 to the early 1990s, owing to the global impacts of one of the strongest El Niño events in the 20th century, the 1982-83 El Niño, El Niño study in China entered its third stage. With the successful forecast on the 1998 Great Flood in the Yangtze River Basin, ENSO studies in China blossomed into in the fourth stage.
The mention of the El Niño phenomenon first appeared in the scientific literature in China about six decades ago, although it was only considered to be a local natural event (near Peru) without any global impact. Only after the 1982-83 El Niño were the relationships between El Niño and anomalous weather events in China and its impact on China agriculture addressed, but only in meteorological research community. In the early 1990s, the media in China started to cover news on the impacts of the longest series of El Niño events (i.e., 1990-1995) on foreign countries, especially in South America and Australia. The public, however, was unaware of the relationship between the El Niño and their own daily lives, because of the lack of communication between the meteorological community (including weather services, research institutions and universities) and the public.
In early 1997, the magic phrase, “El Niño”, finally escaped from the “ivory tower” of the scientific community and became one of the hottest words on various TV programs, national and local newspapers around the country. Becoming so concerned about the impact of extreme climate events on national economic development prospects, President Jiang Zeming and other top government leaders consulted with the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) and the National Oceanic Administration (NOA) for information on El Niño and its impacts during the period of the 1998 great flood from June to August, 1998 in the Yangtze River Basin even though El Niño was already in its decaying mode at that time.
Although the Chinese weather service has made seasonal and annual predictions since early 1950s, the predictions have been provided only to the central or local government decision makers when they were making their annual working plans for agriculture, water management and disaster relief. Such information is not available to the general public. This is so, because on the one hand, the accuracy of long-range forecasts is low due to the complexity of climate variations in China. Therefore, the weather service is not confident enough to release its predictions to public. On the other hand, the China weather service for a long time has lacked the trained personnel to deal with the media and the public to educate them on climate change and weather events, and particularly on societal impacts and on the usefulness of meteorological information to society. With lessons and experiences gained from the 1997-98 El Niño event, both meteorological community and the general public in China are starting to come together to deal with climate and its impacts on society.
Many lessons have been learned from this study and perhaps among the most important ones are the following: 1) there are many scientific uncertainties in the understanding and forecasting of ENSO and its impacts; 2) there is a lack of communication between researchers who try to “eliminate” these uncertainties and users who desperately need the information but either never use it or are skeptical about its reliability because of the uncertainties. With respect to the scientific understanding of ENSO, the uncertainties are due mainly to the lack of proper observation networks which require human capacity building for research. Studies focused on understanding the ENSO phenomenon, especially its teleconnections to China, and more funding for basic research are needed.
The lack of communication among the scientific community, the media and users not only must be dealt with for the benefit of reducing the ENSO’s impacts but also will be useful for building a communication channel to educate the public on a wide range of scientific issues. As a scientific community, good communication is also needed between physical scientists and social scientists. Trained personnel and additional infrastructure and funding are also needed to improve communication with the media and users so that the information provided by scientists is not misinterpreted.