Nearly twenty years ago, one of the worst El Niños on record swept across the globe; villages in Peru were washed away, and peat-bogs in Indonesia went ablaze.
In 2015, El Niño reemerged as a topic of concern as scientists predicted that this one, dubbed “Godzilla” because of its anticipated strength, could have major influence on weather around the world.
What Is El Niño?
El Niño is a naturally occurring period of abnormally warm ocean temperatures, which occurs every two to seven years and causes short term climate variations around the globe. Sometimes referred to as a Pacific warm episode, El Niño is not to be confused with La Niña, which describes the opposite phenomenon when ocean temperatures are cooler than normal.
Live Science explains that El Niño is a cycle, which “begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. Normally, this warm water pools near Indonesia and the Philippines. During an El Niño, the Pacific’s warmest surface waters sit offshore of northwestern South America.”
El Niño alters jet streams and pressure systems, which determine the intensity of storms, bringing various weather extremes to different locations on the globe. Over the years, scientists have been able to monitor the activities of El Niño using buoys, ships, and satellites.
A study on the relationship between climate change and El Niño has shown that global warming isn’t likely to cause an increase in the overall number of El Niños, but the occurrence of “super” El Niños, those which are very strong, may double in frequency.
Who Is Affected?
Studying past El Niño episodes has helped climate scientists predict weather patterns around the world as they may be affected by the warming ocean temperatures.
Typically, El Niño means more rainfall across the east-central and eastern Pacific, and unusually dry conditions for northern Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It can last from nine months to a year, bringing changes in precipitation levels and air temperatures throughout the winter and summer.
Such changes hold potential for catastrophic weather events, like floods, droughts, and fires; the 1997-98 El Niño was responsible for the deaths of 23,000 people and a global economic loss of $45 billion.
[contextly_sidebar id=”oyt5eQnKTcZtujsqh23SGWRfvHo3Dpzz”]From December to February, the winter period may bring wetter than normal conditions from Brazil to coastal Ecuador, while parts of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains will experience this wetness in the summer, from June to August. For other parts of South and Central America, winter will be uncharacteristically dry.
Countries across southeast Asia and Africa, and parts of Canada will generally experience warmer than average temperatures between December and February, while the Gulf Coast of the United States may cool down.
Landslides, floods, and mudflows are coursing through South America, where the effects of “Godzilla” are being felt as of August 2015. This El Niño has killed six people in Chile, and flooded nearly 30 towns in Argentina, causing damages to crops and disrupting copper mining.
What To Expect
Sea surface temperatures in the east central Pacific Ocean this year have climbed to 3.6℉ (2℃) above average, clueing in scientists that this El Niño may be among the strongest on record.
The “Godzilla” El Niño has so far led to suppressed hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean, but increased tropical cyclone activity in the Pacific, along with droughts in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia.
In the United States, the real effects will likely not be seen until late fall, or early winter, when temperature and precipitation changes are predicted to take hold. Increased precipitation is expected to provide minor relief to California once rainfalls begin, though not enough to lift the drought, and comes with the threat of flood related erosion and mudslides.
Monsoons and blizzards swept through with the last El Niño five years ago, and Godzilla, which is expected to die down in the spring, threatens to be much stronger.
Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration