El Nino is the name given to periodic changes in the Eastern Pacific near South America, when surface water temperatures hit a peak high. This has a cascading effect on weather, wildlife, fisheries, food production and more. (La Nina is a swing in the other direction.) Typically, this happens over the course of several years.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Because it can take years for ocean temperatures to build to El Nino levels, long term prediction is chancy. As the video above indicates, however, it looks like the process is well under way.
Back in April, Adam Mann at Wired was putting the pieces together.
Official NOAA Climate Prediction Center estimates peg the odds of El Niño’s return at 50 percent, but many climate scientists think that is a lowball estimate. And there are several indications that if it materializes, this year’s El Niño could be massive, a lot like the 1997-98 event that was the strongest on record.As of June, the consensus still seems to be that an El Nino is on the way and it could a big one. Kiyoshi Ando at Nikkei Asian Review covers an aspect of this that touches on Climate Change denial.
“I think there’s no doubt that there’s an El Niño underway,” said climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The question is whether it’ll be a small or big one.”
If conditions flip to a potential El Nino episode this summer, it could amplify the effects of global warming.Climate Change deniers have seized on the post 1997 El Nino period when temperatures stopped rising as evidence that Global Warming is a hoax. With the trade winds getting interrupted and a Kelvin Wave heading towards South America, the upward trend could resume. Kevin Schulz at Scientific American cites the latest odds on it happening.
It is understood now that global average temperatures are being driven upward by human activity. But in recent years, there has been a hiatus in overall average temperature rise. This can in part be attributed to the series of La Nina episodes that have occurred since the 1997-1998 El Nino.
Time for a shift
The hiatus has stopped global temperatures from rising, and the reason, as explained by University of Tokyo associate professor Masahiro Watanabe, is because conditions now favor the accumulation of heat in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. When the ocean can absorb more heat, it takes this heat away from the air, keeping global warming in check. This hiatus is caused by a large-scale change in the distribution of water temperatures in the Pacific.
However, if these favorable conditions break down because of a powerful El Nino episode and make it easier for the atmosphere to warm up, the hiatus in global warming would end.
Scientists speaking at a press conference yesterday afternoon said the odds that El Niño will develop during the summer have risen from 65 to 70 percent. The prediction comes in a new monthly report from the U.S. National Weather Service and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. The experts also said there is up to an 80% chance that El Niño will develop during the fall and winter.emphasis and links added; briefing summary here
Regions across the U.S. that are normally wet can dry out during El Niño conditions, while normally dry regions can flood. Worldwide expectations related to El Niño are not always accurate, however. “There is an expectation of drought, but not in every single El Niño event do we actually have drought,” Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said during the briefing.
If the picture is not more defined, part of the reason is the deficit hysteria and budget wars in Washington. As noted here,
A regime shift has a major impact on climate, and it also leads to a sudden change in fish catches.emphasis and links added
To predict a regime shift requires long-term and precise monitoring of events at sea.
To this end, the Jamstec and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are collaborating in the tropical Pacific. But because of budgetary difficulties, the number of monitoring buoys at their disposal has declined in recent years.
As of the spring of last year, 24 of NOAA's 55 buoys were unable to operate and send data, and the situation is no better today.
El Nino conditions may be developing, but a lack of buoys could hinder the ability of scientists to monitor the situation.
The odds are increasingly likely that 2014 is going to see an El Nino event, and indications suggest it could be as large or larger than the 1997 El Nino. How it will play out is still too chaotic to predict. It may start to make its effects felt by this summer, though fall into winter is more the usual pattern. Adam Mann's article at WIRED gets into all of the possible consequences. Here's a sampling of just a few of the possibilities.
A strong El Niño could start affecting the world as early as the fall. The Pacific hurricane season, which gets active around September, is greatly enhanced during El Niño. This likely means more tropical thunderstorms that could affect eastern Pacific areas such as Mexico. In contrast, Atlantic hurricanes are suppressed, meaning fewer and less severe storms with a lower chance of making landfall and doing damage.California is definitely hoping for some drought relief, although they'e not counting on it. El Ninos can vary widely as to what areas they effect. And then there's such a thing as too much of a good thing. In the winter of 1861-62, the Pineapple Express started conveying water to California and didn't stop for weeks. The result was massive flooding that turned central California into a vast lake.
The winter is when El Niño really gets going, though. Moisture flows from Hawaii to southern California in an atmospheric river colloquially known as the “Pineapple Express.” This creates heavy rainfall that dumps on the region. Though this could bring some relief from California’s drought, it also comes with the risk of flash floods and mudslides because the ground has been so hard and dry.
El Niño has other effects further into North America. It tends to enhance the jet stream, creating a wall that prevents Arctic air (and the Polar Vortex) from dipping down to mid-latitudes. East Coast winters are generally drier and warmer during El Niño years, which is probably good news to those still smarting from this recent frigid season. The mild winter has interesting downstream effects, like a boost for the U.S. economy during the Christmas season.
This enormous pulse of water from the rain flowed down the slopes and across the landscape, overwhelming streams and rivers, creating a huge inland sea in California’s enormous Central Valley—a region at least 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Water covered farmlands and towns, drowning people, horses and cattle, and washing away houses, buildings, barns, fences and bridges. The water reached depths up to 30 feet, completely submerging telegraph poles that had just been installed between San Francisco and New York, causing transportation and communications to completely break down over much of the state for a month...One effect of a big El Nino is that it may convince those skeptical of Climate Change. Annie Sneed at Scientific American cites a poll that finds:
...Americans who trust climate scientists tend to keep their global warming views, while the one-third of Americans suspicious of climate scientists seems to be swayed by the previous year’s average world temperature record. When the media declares that last year was the Earth’s hottest or coldest (or second hottest or coldest and so on) on record, apparently this news influences whether or not that latter group accepts that global warming is real.emphasis added
2015 could be an interesting year. If an El Nino does drive temperatures up again, it might make it easier to campaign on Climate Change, as the skeptics will be less likely to reject the message. On the other hand, if the El Nino is followed by more cooler years, the deniers could come back in full force. This could be a good time to place some weather bets with denialist friends; odds are they've heard nothing of this in the Wingnut bubble world. It also might be a good idea to review your weather emergency plans, since it's been a few years since we've last had this. (It'd be a good idea in any case; the weather is becoming more variable, regardless of El Nino events.)
Interesting times ahead.
UPDATE: From the comments, it looks like a number of people are really interested/concerned over just how an El Nino might play out over California. There's a serious need for water to put a dent in the drought, but also fears of fire/flooding/mudslides and all the other ways weather can interact with the local landscape. Are flood control structures in good shape? Are people prepared for what can happen, especially those who may be new to an area and don't know the local weather history? Multiply this by global effects from the weather conditions that follow from an El Nino, and we'll just have to see.
All we know at this point is that an El Nino looks increasingly likely. What it will bring with it is still an open question, and which areas will feel the greatest effects can only be guessed at, at this time. One of the problems with Climate Change is that it is pushing us into unknown territory, which affects our ability to predict the future based on what happened in the past.
Keep your fingers crossed.