Climate models from around the world are warning of the possible emergence of an El Niño phenomenon at the end of the year – a type of warming in parts of the Pacific Ocean which, as the Guardian explains, could increase catastrophic weather events around the world during year.
As reported by the British newspaper, some models increase the chances that the phenomenon will take on extreme characteristics in the last months of the year, calling it a “super El Niño”. Such a scenario translates into very high temperatures in the central Pacific region around the Equator.
The last time the planet experienced an extreme El Niño phenomenon in 2016, the global temperature broke all records, with the contribution of man-made climate change. The result was floods, droughts and epidemics.
Risks and cautions
Australia’s National Weather Service said on Tuesday that all seven models it had reviewed, including those from Britain’s, Japan’s and the United States’ weather services, showed sea surface temperatures would reach heights consistent with the El Niño phenomenon until August.
But both the agency and climatologists warned that forecasts during the southern hemisphere autumn are not as reliable and should be “treated with some caution.”
In any case, the agency concludes that there is a 50% chance of El Niño occurring by the end of the year.
What does an extreme El Niño look like?
One of the features of the phenomenon is a rise in sea surface temperature of at least 0.8 °C (33.44°F) relative to the long-term average in a region of the central Pacific Ocean at the height of the equator. Extreme El Niño events translate into an increase in regional temperatures of 2 °C (35.6°F).
Several forecasts suggest that temperatures could reach those heights by October, with scientists again urging a cautious reading of their early conclusions.
“It’s time for the next big one”
Dr. Mike McFadden, a researcher at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Guardian that historically El Niño events occur about every four years.
“It’s time for the next one. However, forecasts for the intensity of El Niños show large discrepancies, from huge to weak,” he stressed.
He explained that powerful El Niño events tend to occur every 10 to 15 years, so it would be “very unusual” for the planet to experience even one more after the strong events of 2015 and 2016.
“However, nature has a way of surprising us when we think we know it all,” he added.
“We must be prepared”
“The really big El Niño events affect the entire planet with extreme droughts, floods, heat waves and storms. If it happens, we should be prepared. However, it could also be weakened. We should be careful and prepared for all eventualities.”
Kathryn Gunter, a climatologist at the agency, told the British newspaper:
“At this time of year the forecasts are dire, but we are seeing international climate models agree on their predictions of El Nino-level warming.”
The agency is also monitoring temperatures developing in the Indian Ocean, where there is a “slightly increased risk” of developing conditions that tend to cause drier conditions in southeastern and central parts of Australia, intensifying the effect of El Niño.
As the scientist explained, in the case of Australia the intensity of El Niño does not necessarily coincide with the intensity of its effects. But he added that “during El Niño we typically see reduced rainfall in eastern Australia during winter and spring, but also increased temperatures in the southernmost two-thirds of the country”.
These types of conditions increase the risk of fires and heatwaves, he added.
Studies have shown that as global temperatures continue to rise, the likelihood of extreme El Niño events also increases. In Australia, El Niños are intensifying the risk of drought, heatwaves and wildfires in the east of the country, while increasing the risk of mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.
Around the world, El Niño has caused record temperatures in the past and has been linked to floods and landslides in Central America and the absence or delay of monsoons in India. The most powerful El Niño phenomenon recorded this century, which lasted from 2015 to 2016, was linked to outbreaks of epidemics around the world, from diseases such as cholera or Dengue Fever.
When will we know for sure
McFadden and other scientists also warn that in 2014 there were predictions of powerful El Niño events that initially appeared to be disproved. But a year later the strongest such phenomenon of the current century actually began, as pointed out to the Guardian by Dr. Angus Santoso, an expert on Pacific climate change at the University of New South Wales.
Since scientific predictions became more reliable in the 1950s, he said, only three extreme El Niño events have been recorded: from 1982 to 1983, from 1997 to 1998 and from 2015 to 2016 Some scientists believe that the El Nino phenomenon of 1972-73 can also be characterized as extreme.
Speaking to the Guardian, Santoso pointed out that “forecasts show that we are most likely to have an El Niño, but we will have to wait a little longer to see if it will be weak or strong.”
In addition, he added that we should prepare for the scenario of an extreme El Niño, but also that by June the models will be much more accurate.