El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) refers to the cycle of warm and cold Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean. These warm and cold phases are known as El Niño, and La Niña, respectively. El Niño events typically come around every 3-7 years (~5 years on average) and can last between nine months to two years. The most recent El Niño occurred in 2018-2019, bringing with it a lack of rainfall that plunged parts of Indonesia into extreme drought.
Since the start of 2023, Central Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo has been experiencing intense rain accompanied by strong winds and thunderstorms. According to the Central Kalimantan Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG – Indonesian acronym), we are currently experiencing a weak La Niña, though this is soon predicted to give way to more neutral conditions lasting into the mid-year.
“In the second half of 2023, we will see either a continuation of ENSO Neutral conditions or a switch to El Niño. The chance of either occurring (relative to the other) is less than 60% in both cases, although there is a slightly greater likelihood of El Niño,” revealed forecaster Muhamad Ihsan Sidiq via online message.
Ihsan explained that these climactic shifts affect weather patterns around the globe, not just in the tropical Pacific where ENSO originates.
In 2015 and 2019, severe El Niño conditions gave rise to massive wildfires in Central Kalimantan. In 2019 alone, 317,749 hectares of land were burned across the province, including critical forest habitat. One of the affected areas is the riverside Peat Forest Natural Laboratory (LAHG – Indonesian acronym), a special zone within the Sebangau National Park.
To prepare for fire outbreaks in the event of another El Niño later this year, routine monitoring activities are being carried out across the most fire-prone areas. The Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), which lies within the University of Palangka Raya (UPR), joined forces with Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) Indonesia to conduct patrols in the LAHG.
The CIMTROP Patrol Team Coordinator, Kitso Kusin, said that this year has seen a flurry of activity in anticipation of the next El Niño. To facilitate better access for emergency firefighters, the nearby river was cleared of pandan leaves and other organic debris which had built up, blocking several points of entry into the forest by boat.
“Besides their role in firefighting and prevention, our patrols around the LAHG also help to deter illegal loggers from operating in this area,” he continued.
Although the team’s capacity is growing, they have yet to secure all the equipment needed to fight fire outbreaks on the scale seen in 2015 and 2019. Existing equipment will also require maintenance over the next few months to make sure everything is in full working order and ready to go should the team be called to an emergency response.
High water levels (like those associated with the current La Niña) greatly reduce the risk of fires in peat-swamp forests. We hope that the forest will remain waterlogged, and that our efforts can secure another fire-free year in the LAHG, despite the potential for El Niño.
Written by Yohanes Prahara, BNF’s Content Creator and Media Liaison