El Ni単o is gestating in the Pacific, possibly heralding warmer global temps and extreme weather in 2019

By Tom Yulsman | June 15, 2018 5:17 pm
Sea surface conditions are neutral now, but hints point to El Ni単o being in place by early 2019

Here is how sea surface temperatures differed from the the 1981-2010 average during May of 2018. (Source: ENSO Blog/Climate.gov)

While 2019 is still a long way off, we’ve now got some strong hints that the coming year could bring even warmer global temperatures, plus droughts in some regions, and floods in others.

These climatic and weather effects would come from an El Ni単o that seemsto be gestating in the tropical Pacific.

A warming of tropical Pacific waters beneath the surface, along with the output of computer and statistical modeling, have prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue an official El Ni単o watch. That means conditions are favorable for the development of the weather-altering phenomenonwithin the next six months.

Based on all of the evidence available now, forecasters peg the odds of El Ni単o emerging in the tropical Pacific at 65 percent. It would mostlikely emerge during fall in the Northern Hemisphere and continue through winter of 2019.

We should care about this because El Ni単o cangive a big boost to global temperatures, while also reordering weather patterns around the world.

El Ni単o, which means The Little Boy, or Christ Child in Spanish, causes heat stored in the oceans to pour outinto the atmosphere, boosting global temperatures that are already rising thanks toour emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

In fact, a monster El Ni単o in 2016 contributed to record breaking global temperatures that year a record that still stands. (Although itwould have been record warm that yeareven without it.)

El Ni単o also leads to shifts in the jet streamthat ultimately causesome regions to be drier than average, and others wetter, as seen in this illustration:

El Ni単o induced changes in 2019 could look like this

Overall, El Ni単o tends to bring drought to Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Africa and India. And those drought conditions can have very significant, long-lasting effects.

AnEl-Ni単o-influenced-drought in 2016, for example, caused5.6 million people torequire emergency food assistance intothe following year. Some300,000 children between six and 59 months of agewere targeted for treatment of severe acute malnutrition.

Meanwhile,Pacific storms that would usually make landfallin the Pacific Northwest tend tohit California instead, bringing much needed snowpack but alsoaccompanying floods, landslides, and coastal erosion.

On the plus side: El Ni単o usuallyreduces hurricane activity in the Atlantic region. That’s because it typically boosts upper atmosphere winds in the Caribbean and Atlantic, causing wind shear that retards tropical disturbances from developing into hurricanes.

But there’s one big caveat: Every El Ni単o develops against a unique backdrop of other meteorological and climatic conditions. This means that thingsdo not always play out as the averages suggest they should.

The hints of a gestating 2019 El Ni単o include a massive blob of abnormally warm subsurface water that has been coursing across the tropical Pacific Ocean from west to east. This is the second so-called “downwelling Kelvin wave”to do that since March.

A rising blob of warm water in the Pacific may herald the development of El Ni単o in a few months and its continuation into 2019

This animation shows how temperatures in the upper 300 meters of the tropical Pacific Ocean have differed from the 1981-2010 average. (Source: NOAA)

You can see that second blob on the move in the animation above, which shows a cross section across most of the Pacific Ocean. Thesubsurface heat content is now about thesixthhighest since 1979.

ElNi単o is characterized by sustained anomalous warmth at the surface of the seain a region spanning a large part of the central Pacific along the equator known as“Ni単o3.4.” And right now, the temperature of those waters is close to the long-term average. But the downwelling Kelvin waves are pointing toward a change.

As Emily Becker writes at NOAA’s ENSO Blog:

As a downwelling Kelvin wave moves to the eastern part of the Pacific, the warmer waters will rise to the surface. Thus, elevated subsurface temperatures are often an early indicator that El Ni単o is on the way.

Dynamical computer models have been hinting since winter that El Ni単o is indeed on the way. But forecasters haven’t been trusting them because of something known as the “spring predictability barrier.” Now that we’re in June, however, the models are beginning to offer a more reliable picture of the future.And that picture is supported by the output of statistical models, which are based on lots of statistics abouthistorical conditions.

“These models are often more conservative than the dynamical models, and the fact that both sets are largely in agreement is lending forecasters some confidence,” Emily Becker writes.

One metaphor that may apply here, albeit loosely, is this: We’re still in the first trimester, with a long time to go to El Ni単o’s due date.Lots could happen between now and then. So we’ll have to make sure to get regular checkups as we go along.

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  • Matt Marcinkiewicz

    ‘while 2019 is still a long way off’…

    It’s mid-June 2018, correct? If you think 2019 is ‘a long ways off’, you’ve perhaps gone a bit too far down the road of ‘living in the moment’

  • Frank N. Blunt

    Never too early for drumming up misinforming propaganda & ENSO ignorance …
    Have you ever researched Solar irradiance & flux?

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ImaGeo

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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