Thar She Blows! Could This El Nino Be a Whale?

May 15, 2015


A subsurface wave of warm water emerges from the Pacific

Eric Holthaus in Slate:

Last year at this time, I was harping about the “monster” El Niño that seemed to be brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It didn’t pan out. But from the looks of the latest data, I was just one year too early.

Despite last year’s false alarm, there are several reasons to believe that this year’s version of El Niño is the real deal.

First off, it’s rapidly intensifying. El Niño is about self-reinforcing feedbacks between the ocean and the atmosphere, and from all accounts, this one has its foot on the accelerator pedal.

If it continues, the impacts will be felt around the globe—here’s my detailed rundown of what to expect. Among them: drought in Australia, Southeast Asia, and perhaps India, with flooding in Peru and Southern California.

For the first time since 1998—the year of the strongest El Niño on record, which played havoc with the world’s weather patterns and was blamed for 23,000 deaths worldwide—ocean temperatures in all five El Niño zones have risen above 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal at the same time. That’s the criteria for a moderately strong event, and the latest forecast models are unanimous that it’s going to keep strengthening for the rest of the year.

A sub-surface wave of warm water is driving this trend, which has reached off-the-charts levels during the first four months of 2015.

Autumn outlooks made this time of year normally have an error of plus-or-minus 0.6 degrees Celsius, meaning the current forecast of a 2.2 degree warming of the tropical Pacific by December essentially locks in a strong event. At the low end, we can expect the biggest El Niño since the last one in 2009-2010, a moderately strong event. At the top end, this El Niño could be the strongest in recorded history.


Farmer Juanito Masangkay heads out to the fields at night with a flashlight and a bow and arrow to get food for his wife and seven children. By hunting rats.

Masangkay and other Philippine farmers are some of the first to suffer the effects of this year’s El Nino, a weather event that alters climate patterns around the globe. A drought since February has forced him to look for alternative sources of food. The government gives him rice for the tails as part of a program to curb vermin that damage crops; the rats he eats.

“Sometimes we roast them, sometimes we cook them as adobo,” a popular simmered stew, Masangkay said while waiting in line to receive 30 kilos (66 pounds) of rice from the government at T’boli town in South Cotabato province. “We cut the tails, dry them and exchange them for rice.”

Climatologists have been predicting the return of El Nino for years and finally agreed this month that it’s back. There hasn’t been a severe El Nino since the 1997-98 event, which killed 24,000 people and caused $34 billion in economic losses, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The new prediction make it likelier that El Niño could provide California some relief from its devastating, years-long drought. Five out of six times there’s been a strong El Niño, Northern California has been wetter than average. But forecasters hesitated to say for certain whether it would last long enough to make a difference. “While that’s certainly on the table as a possible outcome we just don’t have enough confidence,” Halpert said.

Australian authorities predicted a “substantial” El Niño event earlier this week. But while a strong El Niño has the potential to improve drought conditions in the U.S. the opposite is true in Australia. Authorities worry that unusual weather patterns caused by the phenomenon would exacerbate the country’s own severe drought with below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures.

“Stronger El Niños interrupt tropical rainfalls. That rain fall shifts and Indonesia and Austrailia become drier than average,” explained Halpert. “They’re not looking forward to El Niño shutting the tap off.”

7 Responses to “Thar She Blows! Could This El Nino Be a Whale?”

  1. I dare say that winter and spring here in San Diego have been unusual. Winter (with the exception of a brief cold-spell at the end of December) has been quite warm and dry. Ditto for spring, up until this week.

    Had quite a downpour here last night (even though we were just brushed by the storm-cell). Lindbergh field got over an inch and a half of rain in just an hour, a crazy downpour by our standards:

    The rain-gutters on my condo unit were overflowing enough that I was able to collect about 10 gallons of water for the orchids.

    If this were to happen in January or February, it would have been news, but not huge news. But to have this happen in mid-May (the strongest storm-cells have yet to arrive) is quite unusual. Usually, May is bone-dry.

    The biggie, though, was that last night’s Padres game at Petco Park (near downtown) was rain-delayed. That’s right — a mid-May rain delay for a baseball game in San Diego.

    Add another group of Southern Californians who could feeling the effects of climate change and/or El Nino: baseball fans. 😉

  2. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27.

  3. My Grandfather almost died in the 1918 panedimic. Recent research indicates that it was a strong El Nino year. It was preceeded by the deaths of numerous pigs and birds…ie….like we are seeing in the news………One has to wonder.

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

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