Final Word

A Christmas for all of summer and time to remember Joseph


Expect climate change to make a strong appearance in news columns during the remaining three months and a bit of this year. It will be supported by a weather pattern closely associated with Christmas.

Climate change will be pushed to the forefront by the 21st meeting of the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties, or COP 21, due to start on the last day of November in Paris, France.

At the same time there is mounting evidence that the global weather/climate phenomenon known as El Niño is in the process of making its strongest appearance since 1997-98.

The El Niño phenomenon got its name from two Spanish words literally meaning ‘little boy, and in association with the annual commemoration of the birth of Christ around Christmastime.

It is not sure exactly when they started calling it by that name, but Peruvian fisherman were the first to name the regular appearance of a warm sea current off that country’s coast around Christmastime.

What we do know is that it was first recorded in 1891 by Dr Luis Carranza, President of the Lima Geographical Society. In an article published by the society’s bulletin, he called attention to the fact that a countercurrent flowing from north to south had been observed between the ports of Paita and Pacasmayo.

According to the book El Niño, La Niña and the Southern Oscillation by George Philander of Princeton University, published in 1990, the term, or name, became wider known when in 1895 one Federico Alfonso Pezet, when addressing the sixth International Geographical Congress in London, quoted from the Carranza article.

It transpired that sailors, who frequently navigated between the two ports in small craft, “named this countercurrent the current of ‘El Niño’ (the child Jesus) because it has been observed to appear immediately after Christmas”.

It took until the 1960 before it was widely realised in meteorological circles that the phenomenon was not restricted to the Peruvian coast, but was associated with weather patterns over the entire tropical Pacific and beyond.

For some time now the term El Niño is associated with the occurrence of the warm phase of a large oscillation in which the surface temperature of the central/eastern part of the tropical Pacific varies by up to about 4°C, with associated changes in the winds and rainfall patterns, typically lasting for eight to 10 months.

And often El Niño is followed by his twin sister, La Niña (little girl), a cold phase that may be similarly strong. Together they are part of a large oscillation, first described in 1923 by Sir Gilbert Walker as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The entire cycle has no regularity to it and can last anything between three to seven years and can be highly variable in strength and timing.

Meteorological experts widely acknowledge that they do not fully understand what causes these changes in the ENSO cycle.

But the effect of ENSO on the climate and weather patterns is well established and enough is understood of how it evolves once it has begun, so that there is by now a useful ability to make forecasts six to nine months ahead for some regions, some far removed from the tropical Pacific Ocean.  

Against this background meteorologists are warning that we might be heading for an El Niño occurrence, worse than the one of 1997/98, previously the worst one in living memory. For countries, from Australia to India and from Southern Africa to Brazil, it means that the heat redistribution in the ocean will create a major reorganisation of atmospheric convection, severely disrupting weather patterns. That, in turn, translates to a drought-stricken South Africa unlikely to get a good water top-up in the summer rainfall regions of the country.

What happened to Joseph’s wisdom?

Against this background it is almost unbelievable that another term, ‘Joseph’s policy’, has just about disappeared from both our vocabulary and practical policies – in South Africa as well as in the rest of the world.

Way back when, some of the South African agricultural control boards, and the Maize Board in particular, followed an active ‘Joseph’s policy’ both to stabilise prices from season to season and to stockpile domestic supplies during good harvest years for the lean years.

The term ‘Joseph’s policy’ comes from the book of Genesis (41: 46-57). Joseph’s advice to the Pharaoh was to stockpile or store grain during the “seven fat years” for the “seven lean years” that would follow.

‘Silos’, as they subsequently became known, have been used since Joseph’s time for the storing of grain.

The word ‘silo’ came to English from Spanish, late during the first half of the 19th century. According to some etymologists it is derived from the Latin word sirum, from the Greek word siros, for a pit to keep corn in.

Others, however, claim it originated from the pre-Greek and pre-Latin ancient Iberian language, which had the word zilo or zulo for a dugout, cave or shelter for storing grain.

Lastly, as a matter of interest for the cat lovers among our readers, it is said that the domestication of cats also comes from Joseph’s time in Egypt. The Egyptians noticed that wild cats hunted the rats and mice attracted to the maize in their silos and started putting out food at the silos to entice the cats to stay.

by Piet Coetzer

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