FINALLY, GMA explains erratic weather, connects strong storms to looming El Niño

CHEERS TO GMA Integrated News for their report on how El Niño could be affecting our weather, explaining both the immediately felt effects and the longer-term phenomena that could manifest later in the year. 

What’s the Story?

As early as January this year, state weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration’s (Pagasa) climate outlook warned of an El Niño, the peak effects of which would be felt in the country in the last months of 2023 to early 2024. It described the impact to be moderate although government officials began urging water conservation. 

Fast forward to August 23, Pagasa upgraded the ‘weak’ El Niño which began on July 4 to ‘moderate.’ Pagasa’s July weather advisories initially reported the El Niño as starting out ‘weak’ but with the possibility of gradual intensification until its peak. With serial storms causing widespread flooding and disrupting daily life, there were few news updates on El Niño. Weather reports were limited to the density of rainfall, the monsoon rains drawn in by storms. But not much more.

Recent weird weather had the public wondering about what was going on with the ceaseless and dense rain which seemed the opposite of the conditions described about El Niño: dry and scorching heat. 

Unfortunately, there was little in the weather news to help people understand what was going on. 

Finally, on August 15, Katrina Son, a senior correspondent turned weather presenter, explained in a report how the ongoing El Niño may be an underlying factor causing erratic weather patterns. 

What the Report Got Right 

The report, aired on late night newscast “State of the Nation,” showed street interviews with the public who openly expressed their confusion about the weather and the advice given by Pagasa. People were aware of the developing El Niño but could not reconcile the torrential downpours with the typical picture of El Niño. “Sabi nila, [may] El Niño, ‘di ba [kapag may] El Niño, mainit. Bakit may ulan?,” (The government said there’s El Niño. But isn’t it hot during El Niño? Why is there rain?). 

The report turned to Pagasa to address the questions: It explained that El Niño actually causes the rapidly changing weather conditions. 

Due to the drier conditions engendered by the emerging El Niño, the elevated temperatures and humidity eventually trigger heavy rains. This explains the sweltering mornings followed by downpours in the afternoons, or as it happened, given the confluence with the southwest monsoon (locally called habagat), constant and ceaseless rain. 

What about El Niño-related weather events that the country may experience later in the year? Son referred to past experience. She recounted that in 2004, the country experienced intense rainfall as well as strong storms before the dry conditions of El Niño set in. The report noted that in 2004, when the country experienced a “severe” El Niño, typhoon Winnie and super typhoon Yoyong (internationally Nanmadol) devastated the country, causing heavy rains and massive flooding.

As abrupt shifts in weather can cause health problems, the report did well to urge viewers to safeguard themselves against heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke. In a brief clip, a Health department official gave simple instructions: stay hydrated and reserve strenuous activities, if unavoidable for cooler hours such as after sunset. 

Why is this Important?

The street interviews demonstrated the need for effective communication about something as immediate as weather. It showed how public information had failed to help people understand sudden changes in their environment. As this is related to potential adversity, such information can make a huge difference in the capacity of people to prepare and to make necessary adjustments to minimize the impact of a weather crises. People cannot prepare well for what they do not understand. 

Because Pagasa’s language may become too technical for the general public, the media must step up and bridge the gaps, finding ways with which to make science understandable. 

In June, when Son first started as a weather presenter, she herself said that timely and accurate weather reports are essential. Both lives and livelihoods depend on it. She received training from Pagasa and the Philippine Meteorological Society in preparation for her duties on TV, she is proving herself an asset to the news program, well-equipped with background knowledge as well as connections to important sources of information. 

Other newsrooms should make the same effort to update reporters’ knowledge on issues of climate and weather.  But even without training, journalists must do the research, review the literature on climate change so that their news can make it possible for ordinary people to cope better with the changes that climate brings.