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Get Ready for Next Climate Phenomenon: El Nino

For West Coasters sick of the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure and East Coasters tired of hearing about the polar vortex, get ready for a new climate phenomenon to dominate headlines. El Niño could be making a return this fall after a 4-year hiatus, changing rainfall and temperature patterns across the world. It could even boost the odds of 2014 being the globe’s hottest year on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an El Niño Watch on Thursday, indicating conditions are favorable for the climate phenomenon to develop in the next 6 months. “Neutral” conditions are likely through the summer, but by fall NOAA's joint forecast with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society puts the odds of an El Niño developing at more than 50 percent. It’s been nearly 48 months since the last El Niño formed.

A graph showing the probabilities of El Niño, La Niña, and neutral conditions through December. Data via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and International Research Institute for Climate and Society's March forecast.

El Niño refers to a warming of tropical Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Peru. A shift in trade winds kickstarts the process, which occurs every 2-7 years, and the formation of El Niño can alter weather patterns around the globe. Some of those shifts could be beneficial, especially in the U.S.

An El Niño increases the likelihood of wet conditions in California and the Southwest, which could provide relief to areas suffering through severe drought. Warm conditions are also more likely in the Northeast. That’s welcome news for a region where teeth have been chattering all winter. The Eastern Seaboard could also see the major hurricane drought stretch for another year as El Niño tends to inhibit the formation of Atlantic Hurricanes. The last official major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Not all parts of the globe would welcome El Niño, though. An El Niño would increase the odds of dry weather in northeast Brazil. That region is suffering through its worst drought in 50 years. Peru’s anchovy industry also faces negative impacts as warmer waters off the coast kill off the food supply the fish rely on.

Global temperatures are also usually hotter in El Niño years. Four of five warmest years on record occurred during El Niños and all have come since 1998. That includes 2010, the globe’s hottest year on record. Layering El Niño on top of the increase in global temperatures due to climate change has some saying that 2014 could break the record.


Global average surface temperatures, showing El Niño years in red. Credit: Climate Central using WMO data.

The forecast comes with a caveat, though. El Niño forecasts in the spring generally come with greater uncertainty. Researchers refer to this as the “spring predictability barrier.” As Capital Weather Gang notes, the last El Niño watch issued in 2012 turned out to be a bust. That year saw El Niño conditions develop in the first half of fall but sputter by the end of October and dissipate completely by the end of the year.

The impact of climate change on El Niño is still an area of active research. There have been reports that the likelihood of monster El Niños will double in the next century as the climate system warms. Analysis of Pacific Ocean corals has shown that El Niños have also gotten stronger over the course of the 20th century, but they haven’t necessarily become more regular.

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Comments

By Jan Null, CCM (Golden Gate Weather Services)
on March 6th, 2014

See the Myths and Realities of El Nino <http://ggweather.com/enso/enso_myths.htm>

Reply to this comment

By kermit
on March 6th, 2014

So increasingly intense El Niños will increase already extreme weather - especially heat - even more than they have historically. Part of the multifaceted problem of AGW is the increasing intensity of the extremes. Will there even be farmers 50 years from now?

Reply to this comment

By Steven Blaisdell
on March 12th, 2014

That’s a really good question - in my opinion, the $666 billion dollar question. Food production and supply is going to be the spoiler in AGW. I’m not a paleoclimatologist, but I’d look at the historical record for CO2 levels equivalent to where we are now - 398 ppm, not seen for at least 3 million years - and where we’re headed. The last time CO2 was ~400 ppm, Arctic temperatures were 11 to 16°C warmer, global temps were 3°C warmer, and sea levels were around 25 meters higher. So that’s where we are right now.

The rate of CO2 increase 1960-2010 itself increased at a decadal average rate of about .22 ppm. So the rate of emissions increase is accelerating.. Since since 2010 the rate of increase is ~.2.25 ppm/yr. This is consistent with the last 5 decades, and with emissions increasing worldwide there’s no reason to expect it to change downward.  Applied decadally 2010-2050, with a current baseline of 398 ppm (2/2014) and no major changes in emissions rates, we should see ~420 ppm by 2020, ~445 ppm by 2030, ~475 ppm by 2040, and ~500+ ppm by 2050. So the question is - what were conditions like the last time Earth saw 500 ppm CO2? ‘Cause that’s where we’re headed.

Reply to this comment

By Anders Levermann (Potsdam, Germany)
on March 8th, 2014

This was previously predicted by scientists, including the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in PNAS: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/06/26/1309353110

Reply to this comment

By William Hughes-Games (Waipara New Zealand)
on March 9th, 2014

This should be fun.  I’m looking forward to ever more inventive ways that the deniers of climate change will use to explain the jump in temperature.  It’s like watching a tobacco executive explaining to a congressional hearing how smoking will improve your health.  It’s more entertaining than television.

Reply to this comment

By Hernan L. Villagran
on March 9th, 2014

Since year 2002, it was a complete nightmare to try to convince the scientific community I used to interact with, about the effects El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon exerts on medium-long term development and infrastructure planning, besides natural resources management - fisheries -. Traditional, very specialized, scientists considered this approach to be “too political” and even a bit not scientific at all ...

The science fact is climate change and the huge environmental crisis we all are witnessing, is a strong proof I was right from the very beginning.

Papers dealing with policy matters that can be linked to ENSO are so few, and it is becoming a strong scientific field that demands transdisciplinarity - far beyond multidisciplinarity - and system-thinking minds.

My first-step paper (In Spanish)

El Niño Phenomenon and Public policy: A Scientific, technological and Institutional Challenge.

http://www.unisdr.org/2005/HFdialogue/download/tp1-Paper-ENSO-Revista-Dialogo-Andino-2003.pdf

You can contact/follow me on twitter: @HL_Villagran

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