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Is A Super El Niño Coming That Will Shatter Extreme Weather And Global Temperature Records?

temperature anomalies

Chart of global temperature since 1950, also showing the phase of the El Niño-La Niña cycle. Via NASA.

Signs are increasingly pointing to the formation of an El Niño in the next few months, possibly a very strong one. When combined with the long-term global warming trend, a strong El Niño would mean 2015 is very likely to become the hottest year on record by far.

El Nino

El Niño visualization (via NOAA)

An El Niño is “characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific,” as NOAA explains. That contrasts with the unusually cold temps in the Equatorial Pacific during a La Niña. Both are associated with extreme weather around the globe. But, as the above chart from NASA shows, El Niños are generally the hottest years on record, since the regional warming adds to the underlying global warming trend. La Niña years tend to be below the global warming trend line.

Because 1998 was an unusually strong “super El Niño,” and because we haven’t had an El Niño since 2010, it can appear as if global warming has slowed — if you cherry-pick a relatively recent start year. But in fact several recent studies have confirmed that planetary warming continues apace everywhere you look.

Remember that 2010, a moderate El Niño, is the hottest year on record so far. And 2010 saw a stunning 20 countries set all-time record highs, including “Asia’s hottest reliably measured temperature of all-time, the remarkable 128.3°F (53.5°C) in Pakistan in May 2010.” Meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters said 2010 was “the planet’s most extraordinary year for extreme weather since reliable global upper-air data began in the late 1940s.”

Given that the “Earth’s Rate Of Global Warming Is 400,000 Hiroshima Bombs A Day,” the planet is half a billion Hiroshimas warmer than it was in 2010. So even a moderate El Niño will cause record-setting temperature and weather extremes. But a strong one, let alone a super El Niño, should shatter records.

Peru’s official El Niño commission said last week that they are expecting an El Niño to start as soon as April. Peru tracks this closely because “El Nino threatens to batter the fishmeal industry by scaring away abundant schools of cold-water anchovy.”

To be clear, an El Niño is not a sure thing at this point. Some forecasters put the chances at about 60 percent, but one recent study put the chances at 75 percent.

Mashable’s Andrew Freedman (formerly of Climate Central) reports “some scientists think this event may even rival the record El Niño event of 1997-1998.” He cites meteorology professor Paul Roundy:

Roundy said the chances of an unusually strong El Niño event “Are much higher than average, it’s difficult to put a kind of probability of it … I’ve suggested somewhere around 80%”

“The conditions of the Pacific ocean right now are as favorable for a major event as they were in march of 1997. That’s no major guarantee that a major event develops but clearly it would increase the likelihood of a major event occurring,” Roundy says.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) doesn’t change the overall warming trend, but it is a short-term modulation, what NASA labels the largest contributor to the “natural dynamical variability” of the climate system. El Niño and La Niña are typically defined as sustained sea surface temperature anomalies (positive and negative respectively) greater than 0.5°C across the central tropical Pacific Ocean. You can read the basics about ENSO here.

One key El Niño indicator is the rapid rise in upper ocean temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific — just what NOAA reported Monday:

El Nino

Since the end of January, temperature anomalies have strongly increased.

Meteorologist Michael Ventrice had a detailed analysis in late February here on why such warming is significant.

For El Niño junkies, NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) releases a weekly ENSO report every Monday here. And super-junkies can go to the ENSO page of the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology (updated every second Tuesday), which also charts another key El Niño indicator, the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). For the SOI, “sustained negative values below −8 may indicate an El Niño event.” The latest 30-day SOI value (through March 23) is −12.6.

The ensemble mean prediction of NCEP’s Climate Forecast System (CFS) is for an El Niño in early summer, eventually getting quite strong:


When the El Niño forms and then peaks is crucial to whether 2014 or 2015 (or both!) will be the hottest year on record. A 2010 NASA study found “the correlation of 12-month running-mean global temperature and Niño 3.4 index is maximum with global temperature lagging the Niño index by 4 months.”

If we do get an El Niño, and it looks anything like the 1997/1998 one, then 2015 in particular should be the hottest year on record by far. Stay tuned.

The post Is A Super El Niño Coming That Will Shatter Extreme Weather And Global Temperature Records? appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Joseph Romm's picture

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Erich J. Knight's picture
Erich J. Knight on Mar 30, 2014 2:04 am GMT

The Biotic Pump of afforestation and building Soil Carbon to acelerate cloud formation has been vastly under estimated.

The new findings of carbonacious aerosols’ formation from Fungi generated potasium and the roll of biogenic VOCs & microbes from plant respiration, literaly show how life itself calls the cooling clouds & rain.

Every gram of Soil Carbon holds 8 grams of water.

For a complete review of the current science & industry applications of Biochar please see my 2013 Umass Biochar presentation. How thermal conversion technologies can integrate and optimize the recycling of valuable nutrients while providing energy and building soil carbon, I believe it brings together both sides of climate beliefs.
A reconciling of both Gods’ and mans’ controlling hands.

Agricultural Geo – Engineering; Past, Present & Future
Across scientific disciplines carbons are finding new utility to solve our most vexing problems

Elias Hinckley's picture
Elias Hinckley on Mar 31, 2014 2:31 pm GMT

On the bright side it’ll rain in California…

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Mar 31, 2014 6:18 pm GMT

Jim, agree this is a potential however would have to ask what would the effect(s) be in the future.  I could see the disruption of ocean gyres or the upwellings of high nutrient cold waters just off the cuff.  Would we be substituting one problem for another?  Let’s not repeat the lack of forsight as with fossil fuels.  By all means investigate this as a potential resource but look at the repercussions first.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Apr 1, 2014 2:45 am GMT

Reply misplaced, sorry

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Apr 1, 2014 2:45 am GMT

Jim, am aware of the direction of heat transfer.  If heat transferred to the cold depths my question is what would the effect be.  Those 2 were just things I could readily envision off the top of my head.  In other words lets figure out the repercussions before jumping in the deep end.  Am sure the 1st users of fossil fuels never figured they could damage the global environment.  Who knows, this idea could be a good thing but am concerned about unforseen repercussions.  Would hope our current situation would have taught us to look before we leap so to speak.  Have the effects of such a heat transfer been modelled?  I know the trades are buffering atmospheric temperatures right now but will this increase oceanic dead zones, create algal blooms etc….  Should definitely be investigated but cautiously so as not to worsen a bad situation.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Apr 1, 2014 2:16 pm GMT

Considering the projected size of the economic impact from AGW these possibilities should at least be modelled!  It sounds promising.  The models for oceanic effects are probably not as developed as those for atmospheric effects though.  A possibility to look into.

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