El Niño Odds Boosted Again: Now Exceed 65% By Summer

By Tom Yulsman | May 8, 2014 11:12 am
El Niño

Cross-sectional views of five-day-average temperature in the top 300 meters of the Pacific Ocean in February, March, and April 2014 compared to the 1981-2010 average. (Images: Climate.gov. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

El Niño’s a comin’…  Probably.

The latest update on the climatic phenomenon that has the potential to strongly influence weather around the world has just been posted by the Climate Prediction Center. The verdict: By summer, the chances of an El Niño developing will exceed 65 percent — up from 50 percent in the CPC’s previous update in early April.

And many forecasters are saying that it could be a big one. Really big.

The CPC issued an El Niño “watch” back in March, and that continues — for now. This means the conditions of the ocean and atmosphere in the tropical Pacific region are favorable an El Niño developing  within the next six months.

When an El Niño develops, warm water in the western tropical Pacific shifts to the east, carrying lots of rain with it. This, in turn, triggers a chain of weather effects. More about those in a minute. But first, what has been happening in the Pacific that is raising the odds of an El Niño?

For one, over the past few months a gargantuan blob of abnormally warm water has been working its way beneath the Pacific Ocean from west to east. You can see this “Kelvin wave” in the animation above.

The animation consists of three cross-sectional views of the Pacific down to 300 meters, from the middle of February, March and April respectively. The colors indicate how the temperature of the water departed from the long term average. (One caveat: The surface map and ocean-depth cross-section in the animation are not to relative scale.)

As the animation illustrates, the blob began in the western Pacific in mid-February; by mid-April, it had shifted way to the West and was close to the surface. According to today’s Climate Prediction Center update, the upper portion of warm water has in fact reached the sea surface.

That by itself does not mean an El Niño has begun. But when the monthly average sea surface temperature in the eastern Pacific is 0.5° Celsius or more above average, and other conditions are met as well, the CPC will declare that an El Niño is in progress.

El Niño

Source: Climate Prediction Center

Normally, trade winds blow from east to west, which pushes warm surface waters away from South America and toward Indonesia. This allows cool water to well up to the surface from the ocean depths off the coast of South America. But as an El Niño develops, those trade winds tend to slacken, and even reverse. This allows warm water to slosh back from the western side of the Pacific toward the eastern side. (Click on the thumbnail for an animation showing a warming of surface waters in the eastern half of the tropical Pacific Ocean.)

In fact, the Climate Prediction Center notes that weak, anomalous westerly winds developed in the western Pacific during April. Moreover, storminess was enhanced over the west-central equatorial Pacific.

“These atmospheric and oceanic conditions collectively indicate a continued evolution toward El Niño,” according to the CPC.

What typically happens when an El Niño develops? Peru experiences dramatically increased rainfall, with the potential for devastating flooding. In winter, Southern California and the southern United States tend to experience wetter than normal conditions, while the Pacific Northwest gets drier. Meanwhile, Alaska and Western Canada typically experience unusual warmth.

Meanwhile, on the western side of the Pacific, El Niño typically brings drought — and sometimes devastating brush fires in Australia.

El Niño


There is usually a very significant global effect as well. The warmth that El Niño brings to many areas of the world is typically added on top of the background, human-caused warming of the planet. As a result, El Niño years tend to be particularly warm globally.

In fact, the super El Niño year of 1998 was among the three warmest on record. And 2010, which saw a moderate El Niño, tied with 2005 for warmest ever. (Click the thumbnail graphic above for an illustration illustrating this phenomenon.)

Independently of the Climate Prediction Center, Klaus Wolter of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory monitors conditions that give rise to El Niño and its opposite, La Niña. The two climatic phenomena are part of what’s known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Wolter released his latest ENSO assessment yesterday.

He notes that there are still signs in parts of the Pacific Ocean basin of a lingering La Niña, but also evidence of a developing El Niño as well.

As part of his assessment, Wolter looked to the past to see what has happened during times when conditions evolved as they have done during the past two months. Here’s what he came up with:

Of the 10 cases selected in this fashion, two (1984, 2001) remained either neutral or dropped back to at least weak La Niña status within the year. Of the remaining eight, seven ended up as bona fide El Niño events (1951, 1957, 1965, 1991, 1994, 2002, and 2009), while one ended up as a short-lived one (2012).

In other words, it is possible that an El Niño may not develop, or if it does, it could be a dud. But don’t bet on it. Wolter’s conclusion:

While the overall assessment remains ENSO-neutral, change is obviously on its way, and I expect to see a further shift towards El Niño-like anomalies by next month.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Would massive 2015 US West Coast flooding be discounted as mere weather or be vital incontrovertible evidence of Klimate Kaos! Tell us before it happens, or doesn’t. Draw a graph, make a prediction.

    You can’t successfully do it. The Carbon Tax on Everything’s $trillion/year global economic derailments and corruptions are the Birnam Wood of economics and psychology. Princess Diana’s astounding stable of psychics, astrologers, and soothsayers all missed a blip re their next paycheck.

    General Buck Turgidson, “Well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.” Dr. Strangelove The “single slip-up” sent 1400 megatons to bomb the USSR.

    • Gordon Chamberlain

      Al What does the graph about the probability of an El Nino tell you about that event occurring? It is not about incontrovertible evidence it is about probability. The culmination of thousands of research project along with ocean acidification point to the burning of fossil fuels destabilizing our planets climate. You do realize that wind and solar project and the banning in incandescent is happening around the world,. Plus there are major competitions to carbonize concrete Do you use psychics as you quite their reliability ? Have you ever seen any working in hospitals on the stock market. Not the most reliable source of info

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        You cannot with any certainty predict a huge event with huge contemporary evidence. Yet you $trillion/year derail international economies and burn a hungry world’s food for fuel while claiming to defy thermodynamics with faith-based engineering to save a tenebrous future 100 years hence. Uncle Al says, “ACK! THBBFT!”

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    I look forward to all the reactionary coverage of unusual weather events. =D

    • emma852

      my Aunty Grace got a nearly new blue Kia by
      working part time from the internet. look at this now F­i­s­c­a­l­P­o­s­t­.­ℂ­o­m

      • JimmySpriggs

        Blow it out, lazy spammer. Where’s your sense of pride? You don’t even TRY to weave your pitch into the narrative. Pitiful.

  • amandaeallen

    the funniest thing – we’ve only been able to track climate with scientific accuracy for the last fifty years,,, and yet we are masters at predicting what the next year will bring, our sample is too small to allow for anything but a slightly educated GUESS.

    • Tom Yulsman

      You are mistaken. “Proxy” records, such as tree rings, ice cores, and sediment cores from lakes and the seafloor, have provided a clear picture of climate changes that occurred long before the modern era of instrumental records. One example: the EPICA ice coring project in Antarctica. It is the deepest and oldest ice core record yet, stretching back 800,000 years and chronicling climatic changes that span eight glacial cycles. For detailed scientific information, go here: http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/epica/

      It sounds like you are skeptical that humankind is warming the planet and thereby causing myriad changes to the climate. So you may be interested that prominent skeptics often point out that past changes in climate — natural in origin — have been more significant than what we are experiencing now. So, they argue, how can we know that what’s happening now isn’t outside the range of natural variability? Or if nature is capable of such dramatic changes, why should we worry about any that we may be causing?

      My point in raising this is to caution that as a skeptic you can’t have it both ways. You can’t, on the one hand, say that our sample of climatic information is too small “to allow for anything but a slightly educated guess,” and on the other hand say that on the basis of past climate changes we have no reason to be concerned now.

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        Are the two inconsistent? Perhaps you believe that our knowledge of climate in the past is sufficient enough to know roundabouts what the weather WAS but not what it WILL BE.

        Just tossing it out there. =D

  • Gordon Chamberlain

    Are some humans ecopaths, more importantly those who have aspired to positions of political and corporate leadership capable of causing extensive damage to fish, forests, water, soils, endangered species, to ocean and terrestrial ecosystem , to our planets atmosphere ? Should extensive damage to our environment be recognized as criminal, as ecocide and subject to criminal prosecution under the mandate of the International Criminal Court.
    Was the BP toxic disaster in the Gulf of Mexico ecocide
    Are the dead zones in our oceans ecocide
    Is plundering sharks ecocide ?
    Is mountain ecosystem destruction from coal mining ecocide ?
    Is destabilizing our planets climate ecocide ?
    The campaign to prosecute ecocide is happening now find our more at http://www.eradicatingecocide.com

  • Rusty Brown in Canada


    “…the blob began in the western Pacific in
    mid-February; by mid-April, it had shifted
    way to the West and was close to the surface…”

    Well, no, actually, as the animation illustrates, by April it had shifted EAST and was near the surface. East, West, whatever. Does it really matter? Do we really care about our credibility?



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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