“Unusually Intense” El Nino On the Way?

March 25, 2014

There’s a lot of speculation that the coming year may produce a new El Nino event, even a strong one.

El Nino is an oscillation characterized by warm surface waters in the Eastern Pacific, which comes and goes on about a 3 to 5 year cycle with its opposite number, La Nina – known for cooler eastern Pacific waters.
Globally, El Nino years tend to push surface temperatures higher, and in a warming world, we expect our new temp records to be set in those years.
In 1997-98, the strongest El Nino ever observed produced a very warm year globally in ’98. Since then, we’ve had a few somewhat weaker El Nino years, like 2010, which also produced warm years, but not the record smashing kind that 1998 was, and that we can expect when a large event really starts pumping heat out of the Pacific.

Sydney Morning Herald:

The prospects for a hotter and drier than usual year for much of Australia are increasing, with the Bureau of Meteorology confirming more signs that an El Nino climate pattern is forming in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
Surface waters in the equatorial Pacific “have warmed significantly over the past two months”, with further warming expected in coming months, the bureau said in its fortnightly update.
Temperatures in some areas have risen half a degree in the past two weeks alone and are as much as 5 or 6 degrees above normal, said David Jones, head of climate monitoring at the bureau.
“Things are starting to move,” said Dr Jones. “1997 was probably the last time we’ve seen such [a temperature] anomaly.”

Andrew Freedman in Mashable:

Since climate forecasters declared an “El Niño Watch” on March 6, the odds of such an event in the tropical Pacific Ocean have increased, and based on recent developments, some scientists think this event may even rival the record El Niño event of 1997-1998. If that does happen, then 2015 would almost be guaranteed to set a record for the warmest year on Earth, depending on the timing of the El Niño conditions.

El Niño and La Niña events refer to fluctuations in air and ocean conditions in the tropical Pacific. El Niño events are characterized by warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, and they add heat to the atmosphere, thereby warming global average temperatures. They typically occur once every three to seven years and can also alter weather patterns around the world, causing droughts and floods from the West Coast of the U.S. to Papua New Guinea.

El Niño events tend to dampen hurricane activity in the North Atlantic, and some research has even linked El Niño events to civil conflicts in Africa.

When combined with global warming from greenhouse gas emissions and other sources, El Niño events greatly increase the odds that a given year will set a new global temperature record, as occurred in 1998, and subsequent el nino years.

Tony Barnston, the chief forecaster at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), told Mashable that the odds of an El Niño event developing during the next six months have increased to about 60%, which is up from just over 50% on March 6.


The Pacific Ocean exists in a constant state of unease, like an ocean badly in need of a mood stabilizer. Trade winds blow along and to the north of the equator from east to west, piling up warm ocean waters in the western Pacific, and causing sea levels to be higher in the west than they are in the east. Like a tipping bathtub, this setup can quickly be reversed with a reversal in trade winds and a sloshing of the warm sea surface temperatures from the western Pacific to the east, first at depth in a series of undersea waves known as Kelvin waves, and next toward the surface as the warm waters rise off the west coast of South America.

This complex chain of events, in which the atmosphere and the ocean act in concert to set up El Niño conditions, is well under way now. Starting in January of this year, there have been a series of strong bursts of winds coming out of the west in the equatorial tropical Pacific, and these have essentially replaced the typical easterly trade winds.

Partly as a result of these wind bursts, ocean buoys and satellites have detected the movement of unusually warm ocean waters from the western Pacific to the east. Ocean surface currents, which normally move westward across the Pacific basin, have reversed as well. El Niño forecasters have taken this as a further sign of a developing El Niño, and these conditions were a key reason why an El Niño Watch was issued on March 6.

Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, said conditions are changing rapidly in the Pacific, going from 50/50 odds of an El Niño, to a setup that eerily resembles the circumstances that preceded the monster El Niño of ‘97-’98.

“It’s something we haven’t really seen since the ’97 El Niño,” Blake said of the westerly wind bursts and ocean observations. Instead of having trade winds blowing from the east at five to 10 mph, some locations in the western Pacific have had winds from the west blowing at up to 30 miles per hour, Blake says. This is important because it has ripple effects on the sea and below the sea surface.

“[It’s] not that we can’t step away from it, but with each passing day [an El Niño event is] becoming more likely,” Blake told Mashable.

The ’98 El Nino gave rise to the popular “no temperature rise since 98” or “16 years of no temp rise” meme, that still enjoys popularity in the paranoid conspiracy climate denial circuit.  Cherry picking ’98, as opposed to ’97, or ’99, makes temp records look flatter – this is climate denial 101.

Because ’98 was so intense, it remains one of the warmest years on record, but we can say with confidence that every year since 2000 has been warmer than any year in the previous 2000 years, except 1998 – enough room for deniers to construct the lie.

I addressed the the “no warming since 98” crock several times in videos, including the one below.  Skip to the 2 minute mark to see a discussion of why the “no warming since 98” canard was misleading – by none other than skeptic scientist Pat Michaels, at a Heartland Institute climate denial conference.

One characteristic of El Nino cycles is big changes in hydrological events around the planet.  I interviewed Dr Josh Willis of NASA JPL about this phenomenon as it played out in 2010-11.  The shift in storm tracks that year produced flooding so intense in various areas, that the movement of water from ocean to land actually showed up in the satellite record of sea level rise – leading deniers obviously to crow that sea level was falling.

Yale Climate Forum:

Willis said that while 2010 had begun with a sizable El Niño, by year’s end it was replaced by one of the strongest La Niñas in recent memory. According to JPL, in Pasadena, Ca., that sudden shift in the Pacific changed rainfall patterns across the globe, bringing “massive floods to places like Australia and the Amazon basin, and drought to the southern United States.”

JPL pointed to data from the “Grace” spacecraft indicating that extra rain piled onto the continents in the early parts of 2011.

“By detecting where water is on the continents, Grace shows us how water moves around the planet,” Steve Nerem, a sea level scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said in the JPL press statement.
The extra water flooding Brazil and Australia actually came from the ocean, JPL said.
“Each year, huge amounts of water are evaporated from the ocean. While most of it falls right back into the ocean as rain, some of it falls over land.
“The continents got an extra dose of rain, so much so that global sea levels actually fell over most of the last year,” Carmen Boening, a JPL oceanographer and climate scientist, said.
Willis put the kibosh on those thinking a long-term decline in global sea level is in the works. Sea level drops such as this one cannot last, and over the long-run, the trend remains solidly up, he said.

Here’s that video from 2 years ago.

You can see the sea level blip that Willis discusses in the current satellite image from the University of Colorado, here.  Clearly Willis’ analysis was the correct one, as we see the downward blip from 2010, followed by a strong rebound.


The emergence of a new, Strong El nino event would be a very significant development, which could very likely bring very powerful new warm records, extreme events of global significance, and, maybe, put an end to the “no warming in 16 years” nonsense.




20 Responses to ““Unusually Intense” El Nino On the Way?”

  1. A massive kelvin wave (possibly the strongest wave I have ever seen) is propagating across the tropical pacific something similar had occurred in the last super El Niño event. It is very interesting to watch and I wonder if this is now a regime change of El Niño and La Niña events. Longer and stronger La Niña events periodically spiked with super El Niño events ~15 years apart.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    Also a great name for a band.

  3. cyhalothrin Says:

    “The ’98 El Nino gave rise to the popular “no temperature rise since 98″ or “16 years of no temp rise” meme, that still enjoys popularity in the paranoid conspiracy climate denial circuit. Cherry picking ’98, as opposed to ’97, or ’99, makes temp records look flatter – this is climate denial 101.”

    Yeah, I got thinking about that when I first read that 2014 could possibly be an El Nino year. If that happens and it sets a new heat record, then in 2015 we’ll be hearing about “no temperature rise since 2014.”

    Moving the goal posts is modus operandi for the climate-denial “movement.”

    One question – does anyone know if there is a correlation between El Nino years and Arctic ice melting? I know that the worst Arctic sea ice breakdown was in 2012, which was not an El Nino year. I’m theorizing that a La Nina might actually be more likely to melt sea ice, since a La Nina would heat the ocean while cooling the atmosphere, and an El Nino would do the reverse. But I’m still not sure that there is a visible statistical correlation, which is why I’m asking.

    • heijdensejan Says:

      Of course they will start with “it’s El Nino” after that we will start with the tired “it’s the sun” and “a little ice age is coming” also the old and trusted “no statistical sygnificant warming since 20xx”

  4. chasingice Says:

    Its certainly seems to be setting up for a “perfect storm”.

    Since the infamous 97-98 season, we’ve had 4 El Nino seasons in 15 years, with none of them being particularly strong. While its certainly way too early to be calling for another massive one that breaks temperature records, the early signs are definitely showing signs that its very possible.

    Both the PDO and the SOI have just recently flipped, and if they stay that way, I can see this incoming Kelvin wave really being a huge impact. It will take some successive waves to keep hammering the Trade Winds, but they’re already showing a lot of weakness.

    We should know a whole bunch more in a month or so.

    Here’s a link showing past El Nino and La Nina seasons


  5. […] 2014/03/25: PSinclair: “Unusually Intense” El Nino On the Way? […]

  6. […] Nino has been off and on in the news over the last year or so because it looked like there was going to be a really big one in 2014, but it never materialized. (Even without an El Nino, which warms the surface of the Earth, 2014 […]

  7. […] Nino has been off and on in the news over the last year or so because it looked like there was going to be a really big one in 2014, but it never materialized. (Even without an El Nino, which warms the surface of the Earth, 2014 […]

  8. […] Related May 2015 Thar She Blows! Could This El Nino Be a Whale? March 2015 “Unusually Intense” El Nino On the Way? […]

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