Nel's New Day

June 12, 2014

El Niño, Back Again?

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 9:43 PM
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It rained at my house today, the first time this month. To some of you, the long dry spell we have had in June wouldn’t be a surprise, but I’m talking about the coast of Oregon. It’s supposed to rain every day in June and make us believe that summer has been canceled for the year. But not this year.

Weather forecasters give the weather phenomenon of El Niño a 90-percent chance for 2014. Weather patterns are important, whether people realize it or not, because they can cause flood, famine, war—even reduced gold prices.

For those of you who don’t follow weather, El Niño is a giant pool of warm water in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that sets off weather events around the world. The map below shows the global temperatures of sea surface levels on June 5, 2014.

ocean temperature

According to Tim Stockdale, principal scientist at the European Center for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, the warm water in the Pacific is already the biggest since 1997-1998. That El Niño produced the hottest year on record up to that time and caused massive impacts, including a huge coral die-off. Floods, cyclones, droughts, and wildfires killed about 23,000 people and cost between $42 billion and $58 billion in damage, especially in food production.

Going first to India, El Niño will bring weaker monsoon rains and reduce its already fragile food supply. The first week’s rain of the monsoon this year is already 40 percent below average. Only one-third of farmland in India has irrigation; a 10-percent drop in rain is an official drought. After wreaking destruction in India, El Niño moves to the Philippines. Officials in Cebu are already asking households to save water. Malaysia is calling for water rationing because it expects an 18-month dry spell with forest fires.

Australia already had its hottest year in 2013, and El Niño may raise the temperature this year. Low rainfall in the country’s most-populous southern half combines with hotter years and higher extreme temperatures.

As it moves on, El Niño will collapse fisheries on the coast of South America. A huge anchovy fishery in Peru was wiped out by earlier El Niños. As fish left the abnormally warm waters, the 1997-98 El Niño slashed the catch by 80 percent. The early effects of El Niño in Brazil are expected to raise temperatures during the current football World Cup. Rodney Martínez, at Ecuador’s International El Niño Center, said that many nations are more poorly prepared than they were in 1997:

“In many cases the vulnerability has increased: more exposed population, more land degradation, river sedimentation, collapse of underground water sources, degradation of natural protection in riversides, badly designed infrastructure and lack of coordination and planning to cope with El Niño.”

A comparison of global sea surface temperature between May 2013 (left) and May 2014.

ocean temperature last year

In the tropics and sub-tropics, El Niño can spark civil wars. Of the 250 conflicts between 1950 and 2004, 50 of them were triggered by the El Niño cycle by the loss of crops, jobs, and the psychological effects of hotter weather. Historical data show that a Pacific warming of 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit is associated with a rise in the annual risk of conflict of 15%. The current forecasts indicate that this year’s warming will most probably lie between 0.9 and 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The extent of the weather patterns depends on which way the winds blow. Professor Axel Timmermann, oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, thinks this event will be extremely strong.  Occurring about every five years, El Niño tends to peak in December.

During  the El Niño, corn, rice and wheat yields drop while soybean harvests rise. Drought linked to the 2007 El Niño led to a surge in food prices in 2008 that sparked riots in countries as far afield as Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti.

The United States may actually benefit from El Niño. The hot water in the Pacific brings downpours to the east of the ocean and drying in the lands on the western side of the Pacific. This could relieve the scorching drought in the West, particularly in California. The entire state is in severe or extreme drought, after receiving barely a quarter of its annual rainfall. Communities have been rationing water since March, typically still the rainy season. With the resulting tinder box, the state faces the worst wildfire season ever.

A strong El Niño would double the annual average rain in southern California. Bill Patzert, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “[California has] had three of the four driest years in the West in recorded history…. We are running on reserves, we are pumping aquifers, and our reservoirs are at record lows.” El Niños could also provide a wetter winter in Texas and other parts of the Southwest. Unfortunately, El Niño is not a sure thing to solve California’s problems. The 2006-07 California drought–the worst on record at the time–occurred during a weak El Niño year.

Strong El Niños also typically bring warmer winters to northern states, a relief after last winter’s Arctic conditions. They also damp down hurricanes although a hurricane during El Niño can still be highly destructive. Hurricane Andrew came in 1992, an El Niño year.

As the warmer water of the Pacific Ocean heats the air above it, El Niño pushes the jet stream south, making the southern part of the U.S. wetter than average and the northern states drier. It can also bring back the non-stop blizzards and record snowfalls that Maryland saw in 2010.

Warmer ocean water also means more difficulty getting policies that reduce climate change because the oceans are still absorbing  90 percent of the higher temperatures of the earth. People may be more reluctant to cut carbon emissions if they cannot physically perceive hotter temperatures. Yet a study has shown that El Niño events are becoming stronger, probably even doubling, because of climate change.

Either way, adding the impacts of El Niño to the extreme weather already being driven by climate change increases the damage caused, said Stockdale: “El Niño can be the thing that pushes you over the edge. It will be in the years when you get a big El Niño when you feel the impact of climate change the most.”

Weather forecasters differ on whether the up-coming El Niño will be weak, moderate, or strong. Meanwhile, my little town on the Oregon coast has gotten less than 0.1 inch so far in June with very little forecast for the rest of the month. That’s less than 4 percent of average rainfall for the month. And climate change naysayers won’t shift their opinion no matter what information they have available.

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1 Comment »

  1. Thanks, Nel, for so informative a summary of indicators of climate change here on the coast.

    Like

    Comment by Janice Eisele — June 14, 2014 @ 9:05 PM | Reply


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