Why everyone's freaking out about El Niño
For the past few months, researchers have been closely watching the signs that could indicate what to expect from El Niño later this year, and guys, it’s shaping up to be a crazy one. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has even warned that it could be one of the strongest in history, with ocean temperatures already unprecedentedly high and pointing to what NASA called a potentially “Godzilla El Niño.”
El Niño is a phenomenon caused by shifting trade winds in the eastern tropical Pacific. When the winds that generally blow from east to west weaken, as they do every two to seven years, the temperature at the sea surface rises and heat from deeper down in the ocean rises to the surface. It causes all kinds of weather issues, impacting agriculture, precipitation, and temperatures around the world. In the last really strong El Niño, damages related to the phenomenon were estimated at $35 billion and, more devastatingly, countless lives were lost.
“Since March, above-normal sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific have continued to increase,” Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement to press. “We’re predicting this El Niño could be among the strongest El Niños in the historical record.”
Take a look at these pictures comparing August 1997 and this year, and you can get a sense of why scientists are concerned.
Temperatures for the sea surface are currently about 3.6 degrees hotter than average, and this is only the third time in the past 65 years that kind of anomaly occurred. Probably not a coincidence that all three years, we also experienced strong El Niños.
So what does that mean practically? It could mean mean relief, but not an end, to California’s drought, bringing rain to dry areas. But it could also mean dry weather in places that usually experience a lot of precipitation. It could drive a really harsh winter, cause flooding, and have a huge impact on agriculture. The thing about El Niño, though, is that it’s all about possibilities and not certainties. It’s impossible to know what way the phenomenon could swing, or what will happen when exacerbated by global warming.
Still a bit fuzzy on the whole thing? Check out Vox’s great explainer! And get ready for what could be an intense winter.
(Images via NASA, iStock)