NOAA: El Nino Watch for Later this Year

March 6, 2014

More as this develops.  Nobody knowledgeable is calling this for certain, but equally nobody looks forward to the effects of a strong El Nino.

Capital Weather Gang:

In a bulletin issued this morning, NOAA issued an El Niño Watch predicting a roughly 50% chance for development later this year. An “El Niño” is the abnormal warming of ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean along the west coast of South America near Peru and Ecuador. It can have profound influences on weather patterns around the world.

NOAA’s bulletin says “sea surface temperature anomalies have recently increased near the International Date Line” as well as “in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific,” and that “many dynamical models predict El Niño to develop during the summer or fall.”

El Niño conditions are declared when the average sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific are at least 0.5°C above average for three consecutive months. These abnormally elevated sea surface temperatures allow for the atmosphere to warm and provide instability, leading to the development of thunderstorm activity.

Despite the predictions and the issuance of an El Niño Watch, NOAA cautions that there is still “considerable uncertainty” in the models as to whether or not an El Niño will actually develop. Discerning weather observers will remember that the last predicted El Niño in 2012 turned out to be a bust.

All in all, NOAA’s current forecast indicates that there is a 50/50 chance for an El Niño to form later this year, and as with any long-range forecast, significant uncertainties exist that warrant careful caution and observation.

Figure 1. Depth-longitude section of the departure of ocean temperature from average over the equatorial Pacific upper ocean between 0 – 300 meters between 5°S and 5°N during the period February 25 – March 1, 2014. Averages are taken from a 1981 – 2010 base period. While surface temperatures in the Eastern Pacific were near average to cooler than average, a strong eastwards-propagating Kelvin wave with temperatures up to 6°C (11°F) above average at a depth of about 160 meters was headed towards the Eastern Pacific. If unusually strong westerly winds continue over the equatorial Western Pacific during March and April, this Kelvin wave has the potential to trigger a strong El Ninño event over the Eastern Pacific later this year. Image credit: NOAA/CPC.

The potential El Niño event has been made more likely over the past month due to the intensification of a strong “Westerly Wind Burst” (WWB) along the equatorial Pacific west of the Date Line. As of March 6, 2014, westerly winds that were more than 10 m/s (22 mph) stronger than average had developed between 140 – 150°E, just north of New Guinea. These unusually strong westerly winds were acting to push warm water piled up to the east of the Philippines eastwards towards South America.

The “Westerly Wind Burst” was due, in part, to the counter-clockwise circulation of wind around Typhoon Faxai, which became a tropical storm on February 28 near 9°N, 149°E, and later intensified into a Category 1 typhoon. The Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO), a pattern of increased thunderstorm activity near the Equator that moves around the globe in 30 – 60 days, was also likely involved in amplifying the WWB. In order to keep the momentum of this WWB going and trigger a full-fledged El Niño event, some additional west-to-east push of winds is likely needed during March and April. Some extra push may come from a tropical disturbance (96P) that has developed this week south of the Equator near 13°S 153°E, to the northeast of Australia.

The clockwise circulation of air around this storm is bringing increased westerly winds to the Equator in the region of the WWB, and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center is giving this disturbance a “medium” chance of developing into a tropical depression or tropical storm by Friday. The GFS and European models predict that this storm will move southwards and bring heavy rain to the Queensland province of Australia over the weekend.

Figure 2. Departure of the 5-day average west-to-east blowing wind (the “zonal” wind) from average, averaged along the Equator, between 2°S and 2°N. A strong “Westerly Wind Burst” (WWB) formed in January 2014 near 140°E, and has intensified and propagated eastwards along the Equator. As of March 6, 2014, westerly winds that were more than 10 m/s (22 mph) stronger than average had developed. Image credit: NOAA/PMEL.

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19 Responses to “NOAA: El Nino Watch for Later this Year”


  1. NOAA says 50/50 but other researchers using a new technique they call cooperative detection are suggesting there is a 76% chance of an El Nino developing this year which will make 2015 the hottest on record. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/29/11742

  2. Chris Ehly Says:

    California is hoping for an El Nino year.

    I’ve followed the long(er) term ENSO prediction assessments as well, and find them fascinating. The interconnections of decadal and multi-decadal oscillations are most likely the missing piece to most climate models today.

  3. Jeff MacLeod Says:

    Given the strength of the El Nino in the models 2015 may or may not be the hottest year on record. If it does develop, though, it it is a moderate El Nino I expect it will be the second or third warmest. It is possible that it will be the warmest though still.

    • Chris Ehly Says:

      I have a hard time seeing it being a chart-topper if it does develop. There is just way too much cold water resistance to overcome in the Western half of the Pacific for a strong El Nino to develop. I think this year is just the set-up for a real El Nino in 2015.

    • Chris Ehly Says:

      …and I just noticed you said 2015 and not 2014.

      My apologies for being a slow reader and a quick poster, it seems we very much agree.

  4. rayduray Says:

    Peter, you wrote: but equally nobody looks forward to the effects of a strong El Nino.”

    You might wish to look at the historical record. Generally, El Ninos bring rainfall to California. Which most CA water masters would welcome. :)

    Additionally, the El Nino tends to suppress Atlantic hurricanes because of the increased wind shear of the subtropical jet stream. Most would agree this is beneficial to coastal communities. :)

    Cordially, Your Friendly Contrarian

    • greenman3610 Says:

      got that, but what most people are looking for globally, in the next big El Nino, whenever it comes – is a re-emergence of warming with a vengeance.
      That may help California, temporarily, but it won’t be pretty globally.

    • Phillip Shaw Says:

      Your statement about El Nino rainfall being welcome is too great a generalization. My admittedly limited understanding of El Nino events is that the increased rainfall typically arrives as a series of storm fronts. If so, that wouldn’t be very welcome. Easing a drought takes a series of light to moderate rain events. The rate at which the rainfall arrives is as important as the amount of rainfall. It’s a lot better to have three inches of rain over twelve hours than the same amount of precipitation in just one hour.

      In drought afflicted areas the topsoil is loose and friable and much of the ground cover plants are dead and unable to hold the soil in place. A heavy rainfall does little more than trigger flooding, landslides, and severe soil erosion. Little of a heavy rainfall soaks into the soil to improve moisture content and ease the drought. And as Peter pointed out, the storm runoff that reaches reservoirs carries massive loads of sediment and debris. The cherry on the sundae of storm damage is that trees which were just stressed by the drought, but otherwise healthy, can be killed outright when storm runoff strips the topsoil from their roots.

      • Chris Ehly Says:

        A bit of clarification on rainfall on the West Coast:

        The major difference between El Nino and La Nina seasons, in regards to rainfall, is the location of the jet stream. In El Nino years, the jet stream is moved further South. In La Nina years, the jet stream is further North, usually over Oregon and Washington State.

        Regardless of its location, rainfall is generally increased over the area where the jet stream resides at the time.

  5. dumboldguy Says:

    Our “Friendly Contrarian”? More like our friendly “Don’t Worry, Be Happy Grinning Village Idiot”. (Was that an ad hominem or a “sane” observation from an “adult”—sometimes hard to tell, isn’t it?—-especially if one suffers from cognitive dissonance like Ray)

    Yeah the water masters in CA will be happy (except for all the silt and pieces of houses and maybe even bodies getting washed into their reservoirs by the massive flooding). Yeah, the coastal communities won’t have to worry about hurricane storm surges as much (except that record temps will cause sea level to rise more rapidly and make even a very high tide an “event”).

    And not a very “friendly” assessment as far as the rest of the world is concerned, either. Although the U.S. may benefit in some ways, the global impact of El Nino is going to be negative. Global temps will likely reach new highs, ocean overturning will likely release more heat to the atmosphere, arctic sea ice may disappear in summer, droughts in other parts of the world will intensify, certain very worrisome tipping points may be reached—we will be closer to serious SHTF time.

    You remind me of those little birds who pick through animal dung looking for undigested seeds, Ray. Better than starving to death, I guess, but you really need to look around more before you start chirping in contentment—-those aren’t roses you’re smelling.

    • rayduray Says:

      OK. I should be more gloomy and alarmist. Is that your point? Sorry. Been there, done that. It’s not a stance one can maintain decade after decade.

      Besides which, you seem terribly interested in fretting about hypotheticals. I’d rather fret about real disasters, like the Rep. Maxine Waters stand-down on raising flood insurance rates. Once again, Maxine is leading the charge on providing welfare to the well off. :)

      http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2014/03/04/322194.htm

      As a species we seem pretty hopeless. When the actuaries come up with insurance premiums that reflect reality, what do we do? Create fantasy legislation and keep printing dollars at the FRB, and keep pumping sand onto resort beaches. God bless America.

      One thing we can predict is that when El Nino sends crashing El Nino generated king tide waves into Venice, CA, Maxine Waters’ flood bill will make sure the taxpayer in Kansas picks up the tab. Maybe that’s why they’re so cranky out there, do you think?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        We can always count on Ray to try to distract us from the topic at hand by going off topic on us—–All.The.Freakin’.Time. Just as we can count on him to throw some unnecessary political diatribe in there. Maxine Waters did it all by her commie self? Did Ray notice it passed by a margin of 306-91? Nearly everybody but the tea party idiots must have voted for it. Passed by the same kind of margin in the Senate. Bipartisanship in action.

        I don’t know why you couldn’t manage to maintain this new and more realistic “stance” about AGW. You’ve been maintaining your present “contrarian stance” since 1968—-46 years, nearly FIVE decades.

        I do agree with “As a species we seem pretty hopeless”, a conclusion I was beginning to reach just about the time you were in kindergarten.

        I don’t think the folks in Kansas will be too much worried about “picking up the tab” when Venice CA goes under—if that happens, Kansas will likely be dealing with drought, tornado epidemics, failed crops, no water, and massive spills of tar sands “oil” from pipelines ruptured by the record heat.

        Can we now go back to the topic of the thread, Ray? The not-so-hypothetical and potentially catastrophic El NIno that is coming soon to a planet near you? No politics, just science? Focus, Ray! Focus!

    • rayduray Says:

      PS: I don’t, as you suggest, suffer from cognitive dissonance. I more often enjoy it. Like smirking at this news expressed by the Danish Ambassador to the UK telling the Brits that it is the Vikings who are responsible for sarcasm in the British Isles.

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10677904/Vikings-brought-sarcastic-sense-of-humour-to-Britain.html

      And here I’d thought the responsibility lay with lousy weather, cramped quarters and eels and mash.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Yes, I imagine that you WOULD enjoy being in a state of cognitive dissonance, since that seems to suit your state of “unfocus” and your personality—–(except for the fast that, by definition, CD sufferers are not aware they are sufferers, so there’s a paradox to be dealt with there).

        And here you go again—-attempting to distract us with an entertaining (but overlong) article that is WAY. OFF. TOPIC.

        Focus, Ray! Freakin’ FOCUS!! We’re taking about El Nino! Why don’t you want us to do that?

  6. Gingerbaker Says:

    I have a question for those in the know. So, we have recently been having fun with the polar vortex in the Northern Hemisphere. How is it going to interact with the Spanish twins?

    I’m guessing we don’t know yet, because we have not yet really seen them playing together?

    The reason I ask is….. it seems we are on the cusp of losing our ability to predict the weather to a degree never before seen. The heating of the Arctic, the loss of albedo, the polar vortex and distortion of the Jet Stream – this must be really freaking out both meteorologists and climatologists alike?

    I mean, do we have any idea how long this polar vortex condition is going to last? Is there a best guess – one year, ten years, 100 years, 1000 years?

  7. astrostevo Says:

    There was something in a recent ‘New Scientist’ magazine I browsed at the newsagent (but didn’t purchase) the other week too. Anyone else see / read that and care to verify /expand on that, please?


  8. […] 2014/03/06: PSinclair: NOAA: El Nino Watch for Later this Year […]


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