90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Will El Niño Lead To Extreme Weather This Year?

Pictured are sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures, and La Niña by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. (NOAA)

Pictured are sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures, and La Niña by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. (NOAA)

Early predictions by climate experts say El Niño is coming. The unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific cause different weather patterns in the United States and elsewhere.

The last El Niño was just a few years ago, and the last “super El Niño” was in 1997. That year, from Florida to California, there were storms, tornadoes and mudslides.

Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, speaks to Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about what El Niño is and what might be in store for this year.

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. Prepare for El Nino. That's the word from climate scientists who say we're probably in for unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific this year, which cause different weather patterns in the United States and elsewhere.

The last El Nino was just a few years ago. And the last super El Nino was back in 1997. That year from Florida to California there were storms, tornadoes and killer mudslides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We saw it coming barreling down at us, just screaming down right towards the back of the house where we were standing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And I, in fact, went back upstairs to get a glass of water and looked out our front picture window and saw this enormous funnel cloud heading straight our way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm still missing some friends. I don't know where they're at. And I'm just - I'm kind of hoping they're still around, I can run into them, see if they're all right. I know their (inaudible) was completely demolished.

HOBSON: That sound from 1997 from an NPR report. So what are we in store for this year? Joining us now is Lisa Goddard. She's director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. She's with us from Kingston, Jamaica where she's attending a climate conference. Lisa, thanks for joining us.

LISA GODDARD: Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, it has been a while for many of us, certainly since there's been a super El Nino. That was back in '97, '98. What is El Nino? Remind us.

GODDARD: So El Nino itself is a warming of the equatorial Pacific, mostly in the sort of central and eastern Pacific off the coast of South America. And these events happen about every three to four years, but the spacing could be two years or seven years. So there's a lot of range in how frequently we get El Nino events.

But the warming is quite marked. And so it changes a very large-scale pattern of sea surface temperatures, which has a marked impact on the atmospheric circulation and regional climate.

HOBSON: And what causes that warming?

GODDARD: So the warming is an ocean and atmosphere phenomenon. And once you start getting a warming in those Eastern Pacific waters, it changes the strength of the trade winds. So it actually weakens the trade winds.

And that allows more of the warm water, which would normally be near Indonesia, to move back towards South America. And that weakens the trade winds further. So you can get this positive feedback into an El Nino event.

HOBSON: Now, we heard there what happened in the last big El Nino event back in '97, '98. There was another one in 2009, 2010. What were the results of that?

GODDARD: Yeah, and actually there's been a few El Nino events since '97, '98. So there was one in 2002, 2003 that was about the same size as 2009, 2010. And there are expected impacts. Certainly the countries near the tropical Pacific are more directly affected.

But it leads to, say, decreased Indian monsoon rainfall, for example. So as far away as the subcontinent of India. But more directly, it leads to potential drought in Australia and Indonesia. It can change the strength and the location of the subtropical jet stream that comes into the U.S. So it often leads to more rainfall in Southern California and actually across the southern tier of the U.S.

At the same time, that influence on the jet stream at the end of the year can influence the temperatures in the northern part of the United States. So we typically get warmer temperatures in the northern tier of states, which is good news for them and their energy costs.

HOBSON: Well, and you said rainfall in Southern California. That is being taken as a very good piece of news if it's true, if it actually happens in California, which is in the middle of this severe drought.

GODDARD: Yes, I think that they're very much hoping that this will lead to an increase in their rainy season.

HOBSON: Although, is there the potential for floods like there was back in 1997, '98?

GODDARD: Certainly, because when you get that increased strength in the jet stream, that means more frequent storms are coming in, potentially stronger storms. And if that's coming on top of really dry surface conditions, that can lead to flash flooding if communities aren't prepared, like having storm gutters cleaned out and things like that. It certainly can lead to flooding conditions.

HOBSON: Now, El Nino is also known to cause fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic and more in the Pacific. I know we've already got one in the Pacific right now.

GODDARD: Yeah, that's true. So it does suppress the hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic. That season is just coming up so we'll have to see how that plays out.

So the Hurricane Center is already forecasting a likelihood for less named storms. But even having one modest hurricane - if that single hurricane makes landfall, is still a disastrous event. In the Pacific, though, warmer temperatures that are now seen off the coast of South America and then spreading up Central America, those warm temperatures can fuel the strength of hurricanes in the Eastern Pacific.

HOBSON: So how sure are climate scientists at this point that we are going to have an El Nino event this year?

GODDARD: The outlooks for El Nino event occurring by the end of the year, which is typically the mature phase of an El Nino event, is about 70 percnet based on the most recent outlook. And those outlooks come out every month. An El Nino event in the next month or so is currently about a 50-50 chance.

HOBSON: And is it likely to be a super El Nino or we just don't know at this point?

GODDARD: We don't know at this point. Even with the '97, '98 El Nino, which was already evolving at this time, it was forecast with greater likelihood earlier in the year. We really didn't have a good sense of how strong it was likely to be until about June. So I think we'll have a lot more information in the next month or two about the potential size of this event.

HOBSON: There is one thing we haven't brought up and that is a related event called La Nina. How does that play into El Nino, and when was the last time we had a La Nina?

GODDARD: We've been sort of in a protracted La Nina period, I would say, since the late '90s. And not that we have had more frequent and stronger La Ninas in the 2000s. And that is sort of the opposite of El Nino. We get the cooler conditions in the equatorial Pacific.

The impacts on the U.S. from La Nina events are very much related with drought. So the sort of conditions that we've been seeing in the Western U.S. And even through Texas and the Great Plains, La Nina appears to be playing a role in that.

HOBSON: Lisa, you're speaking with us from Kingston, Jamaica right now where you're at a climate conference. Is El Nino the big topic there?

GODDARD: El Nino's definitely a big topic. I'm here for a climate outlook forum. This is something that's organized very regularly in a virtual sense by the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology to discuss the upcoming season with the met services and the islands here. And once or twice a year, definitely before the wet season, which is where we are today, they get together to discuss all the factors that are influencing their upcoming climate. And so with El Nino, it does reduce the risk of hurricanes, which is very good. But at the same time, it is a likelihood for drought in the region, which is actually not good. Agriculture and tourism are their biggest industries. And so having a lack of water and a lack of water reserves is certainly worrying for these countries.

HOBSON: Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Earth Institute at Columbia University joining us from a conference in Kingston, Jamaica. Lisa, thanks so much.

GODDARD: You're very welcome. Thank you.

HOBSON: And that hurricane we mentioned that's now in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico is called Amanda. It's actually now a tropical storm and is expected to weaken even further to become a tropical depression by the end of the week. On Sunday, though, its winds got up to 155 miles per hour, making it the most powerful May storm in the Pacific since 1951.

In the Atlantic this year, as we talked about, because of El Nino, perhaps, the hurricane season is expected to be below normal with only one or two major hurricanes predicted. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J__o__h__n

    Who gave these phenomena such stupid names that have no relation to their definition?

    • Robert Thomas

      “El Niño” refers to the Christ child. Peruvian and Chilean fisherman gave it that name because they noticed it as a pronounced increase in the abundance of their fisheries that aperiodically occurred, usually around Christmastime. “La Niña” is a back-formation climatologists use to refer to the other extreme of the “ENSO” (“El Niño Southern Oscillation”), characterized by aperiodic oceanic cooling, rather than the warming associated with the El Niño event.

      • Nick

        El Nino is associated with a severe lack of fishery production due to the cessation of any significant upwelling. This cessation is caused by the “cap” of warm water on the west coast of equatorial south and central america.

        See the following: “Fishes that remain in an [El Nino] affected region experience reduced growth, reproduction, and survival.” http://www.elnino.noaa.gov/enso4.html

        • Robert Thomas

          You’re exactly right and I wasn’t exactly wrong.

          Living on the Coast of California, I have witnessed the Northern hemisphere effect of El Nino that periodically brings albacore as far North as Monterrey Bay and other fishery changes here as well. So while that’s bad for fisherman working off of Baja California, “fishes that don’t remain” may provide abundance a thousand miles North.

          As near as I can tell, the answer to J_o_h_n’s question remains that the effects were noticed by fisherman from northern Chile to Peru, who’s fisheries suffered unusual change (good for them or bad, depending). However, the name may be equally due to the increased rainfall brought to the South American West coast and the abundance associated with that precipitation.

          An interesting treatment of the subject, from the point of view of gender and the devastating effects of the ENSO on the southwestern Pacific can be found by searching for

          The Fall of an Angel: Gendering and Demonizing El Niño

          By Julia Miller
          Department of Modern History,
          Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.

          El Niño was gendered male because of a connection between the perceived gift of rainfall and marine life around Christmas and the male Christ Child. This connection of beneficence and El Niño is also a reflection of the influence of the Catholicism that had been brought to Peru by the Spanish colonisers. Replicas of the Infant of Prague, a statue of the Child Jesus, were popular in South America and the Infant was invoked in prayers for favours and blessings. To the fishers and Carranza, El Niño is a blessing. And so it was for the author of a 1891 letter from the files of the International Petroleum Company at Talara in northern Peru:

          o “The periodic rains in Talara and the adjoining country …are by no means regular. Formerly they were supposed to occur every seven or eight years and were known as ‘years of abundance,’ since the desert soil is soaked by the heavy downpour, and within a few weeks the whole country is covered by abundant pasture. The natural increase of flocks is practically doubled and cotton can be grown in places where in other years vegetation seems impossible… . the most remarkable explanation of these rains is that they have something to do with the Corriente del Niño, or Reverse Humboldt Current.”

          Similarly a letter from S.M Scott of Florence, Italy, who was resident in Talara in 1891 opines:

          o “If the sea was full of wonders the land was even more so. First of all the desert became a garden…”

          Heavy rains still transform parts of the Peruvian desert into a garden. However, El Niño is now more commonly associated with menace and destruction…

          At least this is so in the western Pacific.

    • Robert Thomas

      I was prompted by Nick to take a tiny bit more effort sorting out these seemingly arbitrary names for oceanic temperature oscillation. The subject is more interesting than my initial factoid recollection. See below.

  • Rick

    Funny how these climate “experts” love to give due predictions about what will happen in 20, 40, 50 years out due to man-made global warming (oh I’m sorry, “global climate change”).
    But they can’t accurately predict what will happen a few months out. And they didn’t predict the Arctic vortex that affected most of the country this past winter.

    • Robert Thomas

      Sadly, it’s tempting for researchers to connect contemporary weather to climate. When speaking to a general audience, some will say things like “Climate isn’t weather, but climate change that we see now will eventually make today’s weird weather seem less weird and more commonplace,” along with similar observations. Sometimes, their language isn’t that careful.

      Climate is not weather.

      • N_Jessen

        It’s also often said that it’s very hard to attribute individual events to a macro-level change in such a noisy short-term context. On the other hand, as NCAR’s Dr. Trenberth noted, “It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both”. If the background conditions change, so can the ‘potential’ for outlier events fueled by the regional “pooling” of extra heat or entrainment of extra water vapor.

        • Leslie Graham

          It is now possible to attribute some extreme weather events to climate change and the skills are growing with every passing year.
          Quite apart from it being completely bleeding obvious that the climate has gone nuts that is.
          Maybe SOME of these hundreds of extreme events might have occurred without the rise in global temperatures and the loss of 75% of Arctic ice volume or the 6% rise in atmospheric moisture content …but ALL of them?!
          Are you kidding me!

        • Robert Thomas

          Whether it’s the right question or not, it’s one that the public and journalists often pose to researchers and their spokespersons. The latter are often asked, “Is this drought or are these flooding rains due to the climate change that you tell us humans have caused?”

          It seems to me that the the communication of useful information about the results of scientific inquiry to the general audience is more often than not a hard task. Scientific investigators internalize the contingent quality of their interim results and even of their well-supported conclusions. They accept that the meaning of the results of inquiry are most persuasive when expressed statistically and that the quality of their conclusions is best characterized by the degree of regularity they can demonstrate in the distribution of their data, rather than in the accuracy of cause-and-effect prediction of specific events.

          In contrast, the public feels unsatisfied with the persuasive value of the kurtosis or variance of a data set. We make a mistake if we think that because the public is willing to believe that something called the Higgs boson has been identified – “through statistical analysis of many interaction observations” – that it will also accept that specific categories of human activity will likely cause drastic climate change because of “statistical analysis of many observations”. People imagine that a Higgs boson is a complicated “science-y” thing but that weather and climate are everyday things in which effects should clearly yield to causes. So it’s VERY tempting to try to satisfy that unreasonable demand by slipping and making the mistake of assigning this year’s California drought to accelerated climate change (while for example ignoring the 1977 drought and all the wet and average years in between). It’s better to describe even very likely effects such as to polar ice sheet profile as being statistically consistent with theoretical prediction than to declare them inevitable consequences.

          The more recent tendency among apologists to emphasize the threat of more frequent extreme events (inasmuch as the data allow this prediction) is a better avenue but hasn’t entirely displaced spurious claims that this or that weather (by definition, “weather” is the atmospheric phenomena here, at this moment) is due to these or those human activities.

    • N_Jessen

      Maybe it’s “funny” because you don’t understand the major aim of “global climate” science. That is, to study Earth’s energy balance and it’s effects not only on surface temperature, but things like circulation and precipitation patterns (AKA “climate change”) over decades, vs. shorter term fluctuations in the ‘distribution’ of heat and moisture. Models of the latter are more error prone. They don’t do so well with the “noise” in the system, much of which is unrelated to changes in Earth’s overall energy budget.

      El Niño is an example (and a relatively predictable one, once the precursory changes begin). It’s about heat distribution in the ocean, and helps modulate surface warming (since much of the extra energy from the amplified greenhouse effect goes into the oceans). Hence El Niño years are the record breakers in the surface record, as the planet accumulates heat.

    • 14Veritas

      “the country” is not global, and a “few months” is not climate. “man-made global warming” is a component in global climate change. Experts are actually experts ;)

    • Caroline

      They DID predict the breakdown of the arctic vortex, actually (there is always a vortex; usually it keeps the coldest air in the arctic but this past winter it leaked). I don’t think they knew what year it would happen, but they knew that melting of the polar ice caps would make such breakdowns more likely. While we had very cold weather, California and Alaska had very warm weather due to the same weather pattern.

    • Leslie Graham

      Do you have any idea just how much ignorance you are displaying with such ill-informed nonsense?
      You clearly don’t know the first thing about climate change – not even the difference between weather and climate.
      And the terms Global Warming and Climate Change are not interchangable.
      The warming of the Earth – global warming, has resulted in the changes in the climate we are now seeing – climate change.
      My twelve year old Nephew has no difficulty grasping this simple schoolboy science concept but apparently it is completely beyond climate change deniers.
      It is far easier to project (not ‘predict’) long term trends (climate) than it is to forecast short term noise (weather).
      Noone knows how far up the beach the next wave will break but everyone knows the tide is coming in. Except you that is.
      And the scary “quote marks” around the word scientist?
      Dear oh dear. How old are you? Grow up, grow a pair and face up to reality.
      The laws of physics don’t give a damn what you’d like to think..
      Now that climate change is an obvious everyday reality all over the world the denial has become hysterical – just insane.

      • hbk123

        If you are calling someone else ignorant, at least get your “twelve year old Nephew” to proof your writing. It takes a pretty dumb person to write “no one” as one work. And you have a spell checker.

        The fact remains whether it’s weather or climate, scientists have a poor record of prediction 3 days, 3 decades, or 3 centuries ahead.

        That’s the point Rick was making in his own humble, down-home way of writing.

        • Proofer

          “one work.” Did you mean “one word” maybe? Perhaps you should get your 12 year old nephew to proof your posts.

    • manganbr

      Which proposition precisely do you disagree with: 1) that CO2 is building up in the environment due to energy emissions, or 2) that CO2 molecules absorb more heat than non-green house gases ? Is it really hilarious to conclude that, if one accepts both of these propositions, that the logical consequence is atmospheric warming?

    • ThatGuy

      This just in: weather is not the same thing as climate, and weather is largely unpredictable, even with our technology.

      You’re a moron.

      • Rick

        Please follow the community rules and refrain from name-calling.

    • Logan

      No wonder why we don’t have many people majoring in sciences.

  • angel1959

    Deport El Nino

  • McOregon

    one thing is certain, El Niño will lead to weather. What kind remains to be seen.

  • Eric Jennings

    The author forgot to mention that El Niños are a direct result of global warming. After all, you don’t see any mention of it in the history books, do you?

    Proof positive.

    It will, of course, be a barrel of fun watching all the “science” sites (using the term in its most general sense) and “news” sites (ditto) blaming absolutely every result from the upcoming El Niño on you-know-what. Extra inch of rain in Flatbush, Arkansas? Global warming. Not quite as cold this winter in Iceblock, Alaska? Global warming. Mrs. Henderson’s soufflé didn’t rise? Global warming.

    Is there anything global warming CAN’T do!? It’s like some kind of miracle drug!

    More fun here:

    http://www.docmercury.com/rainy/welcome-to-beautiful-lake-north-pole

    http://www.docmercury.com/rainy/welcome-to-the-arctic-circle-sunbathers-resort

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

August 28 Comment

Catching Up With The Polyphonic Spree

The choral rock band out of Dallas, Texas, has been thrilling audiences with its live performances for over a decade.

August 28 5 Comments

‘Enormous’ Growth Of Ocean Garbage Patch

The oceanographer who discovered the floating island of trash in 1997 says he's shocked by how much it's grown.

August 27 Comment

Veteran Honored, But Struggles To Keep Business Open

Former Marine Matt Victoriano is being recognized as a "Champion of Change" at the White House.

August 27 40 Comments

In Defense Of Schlock Music: Why We Love/Hate It

Music critic Jody Rosen defends the kind of over-the-top, sentimental songs that Journey, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel and Prince made famous.