According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s official declaration on Thursday, El Niño has officially arrived, with a 50-60 percent increased change of continuing its activity this summer.
NOAA’s report was issued after nearly a year of erroneous forecasts that the weather event would occur sometime over the last year’s course.
What is El Niño?
El Niño (translated into “little child, “baby,” or “Christ child” from Spanish) is the warm phase of a fluctuation in sea surface temperatures called El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. The ENSO cycle describes the annual variations in the atmosphere caused by the nearby sea surface temperatures that are unusually warm (El Niño) or cold (El Niña) for prolonged periods of time. El Niño conditions lately emerged in the central Equatorial Pacific region.
Such fluctuations in sea surface temperatures usually trigger out-of-the-ordinary events on both oceanic and ground levels, including heavy rains or drier than average weather conditions, tropical cyclones, hurricanes, and so on. Additionally, more and more studies show that El Niño conditions may boost global warming during the years they occur.
El Niño episode doesn’t normally last more than a year, with a few exceptions when it lasted a few years. Both El Niño and La Niña are rare events that happen only 1 to three times a decade, experts explain. They usually begin to build up strenght over the summer season, reach peak between December and April, and lose intensity between May and July. But this cycle doesn’t always follow the same pattern. What is for sure is that El Niño conditions take place more frequent than El Niña ones.
The most affected areas of the globe are those near the tropics, although the El Niño-related extreme weather events may reach even mid-latitudes. Peru is one of the most affected countries by the event, especially due to flooding. The first people to notice the recurring event were Peruvian fishermen who named the phenomenon El Niño (“Christ Child”) because it usually happened around Christmastime.
When they hear about El Niño, people usually think of a cohort of extreme weather events such as flooding and tornadoes because they recall the 1997-1998 El Niño. But not all El Niño years involve such catastrophic scenarios. Additionally, since it is a relatively predictable phenomenon, its outcomes are easier to anticipate and prevent.
Climate Change Altered El Niño’s course
In the US, NOAA is the only entity entitled to officially declare an El Niño year. Because it is the single official body specialized in surveying the oceanic and atmospheric temperatures, and weather conditions. NOAA also uses computer models to predict what events El Niño may trigger over the course of a year.
But last year, although it was the hottest year on the record with historic sea surface temperatures, NOAA researchers were puzzled to learn that El Niño failed to occur. This is the first month in a year that climate experts dare to officially declare El Niño’s debut.
Tony Barnston, an El Niño event expert from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society who contributed to the NOAA’s official statement, explained that El Niño’s unusual debut date is due to the slow pace at which it had built up its warmth in the Pacific over the last several months. It is highly unusual for El Niño to show up in early spring, rather than in mid-summer, Mr. Barnston, also said.
Steve Zebiak, who had successfully predicted the 1985 El Niño, said he had never seen such an awkward run-up of the event.
“There definitely are some questions here. Now we’re in a situation where I can’t think of a good analog for this entire past 12 months over many decades,”
Dr. Zebiak told reporters during a recent conference call.
He also argues that the change in the way El Niño emerges may be linked to climate change, which pushed El Niño closer to central Pacific, rather than leave it near Latin America. Dr. Zebiak also said that his team didn’t have all the necessary details on what that shift may imply, but further study was ongoing.
What about California?
However, the bad news is that this year’s El Niño is too weak to put an end to California drought, although climatologists had hoped that a wintry El Niño would result in more storms and rainfall in the coastal state.
NOAA researchers explained that the event took too much time to build up so it occurred too late to make a difference since the rainy season has only one more month to live. Californians are already concerned that they will soon experience the fourth year of one of the most extreme droughts in the sunny state.
And to top that, the amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains has only 0.9 inches of water content which is only 5 percent of what it should have been during this season, the California Department of Water Resources reported. Usually, the Sierra Nevada snow that melts could supply about 30 percent of California’s water supplies.
Also, DWR explained that for the drought to end California needs a “Miracle March” like the one in 1991, when the state was saved by more rainfall than normal. However, if the miracle fails to occur by April 1, the drought will continue.
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