A recent study found an alarming link between extreme weather and stunted growth in children. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University observed that children born after the severe weather phenomena El Niño were significantly shorter. This first-of-its-kind finding would potentially give a glimpse into the kind of physical changes we could face if we don’t do something to control climate change.

Dr. William Checkley and his team conducted the first study on the long-term consequences of El Niño on human health by studying the growth of Peruvian children born before, during, and after 1997-1998, which is when the most severe El Niño episode ever recorded occurred. The study involved 2,095 children born between 1991 and 2001 aged between 7 and 18 years old, the press release reported. These children were born and raised in a cluster of rural villages in Tumbles, Peru, an area severely affect by the storms. The study is published in the online journal Climate Change Responses.

Results showed that children born both during and after the 1997-98 El Niño storm were smaller than the researchers had expected. However, the most stunted growth was observed in those with the earliest birth dates. For example, children born in January 1991 were below the World Health Organization's reference of height-for-age, HAZ, than those who had later birth dates. The researchers observed that in each subsequent year, the HAZ of children slowly improved.

The team believes that children born during and after the El Niño storms were stunted due to lack of adequate diet needed for optimal growth.

“This is not surprising, given that later body composition is strongly influenced by the nutritional environment experienced in early life," explained Checkley in the press release. “The effects of natural disasters, i.e., severe weather variability from an El Niño, have long-lasting effects on health.”

While food shortages caused by damaged crops and livestock were found to stunt the children’s growth, the storms also brought about spikes in infection and bouts of diarrhea.

El Niño is a weather pattern triggered by abnormally warm waters in the Equatorial Pacific. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it has important consequences for weather all around the world. El Niño normally occurs every two to seven years, but according to the study, scientists predict that climate change will increase the frequency of El Niño episodes. The researchers warned that “given El Niño's cyclical nature, this phenomenon may continue to negatively impact future generations.”