Environment & Science

Potentially record-setting El Niño on the way as Pacific Ocean temperatures continue to rise

"A strong El Niño continued during October as indicated by well above-average sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean," NOAA reported Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015.

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Water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean continued to rise in October, setting the stage for a possibly-record setting El Niño weather pattern, federal meteorologists reported Thursday.

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said sea surface temperatures well above normal are likely to produce changes in global weather patterns that will reach their maximum strength this winter, before going back to a more neutral weather pattern in the spring or early summer of 2016.

In California, that means chances are high for heavy winter rains. One big question remains, though: Will that rain fall as snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains? The state will need substantial snowfall this winter to reverse the effects of a crippling four-year drought.

This El Niño is expected to be in the top three strongest on record, going back to 1950, according to NOAA. And while California and other southern U.S. states are expected to get below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation, the northern part of the country will likely see the reverse.

It’s unclear how the current El Niño will compare with the strongest known event, which occurred from 1997-1998. Much of the water in the equatorial Pacific isn’t quite as warm as it was at this time of year in 1997.

Comparison of ENSO 1997 vs. 2015

David Pierce, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said this event’s legacy would be remembered by the weather impacts it brings.

“I think everyone would call it strong, but not everyone would agree whether or not it’s the strongest we’ve seen, because people tend to look at their local impacts, and those are going to be different depending on where exactly the El Niño’s having its biggest effect,” Pierce said.

Though many in California have hoped for a strong El Niño, in other parts of the world, the climate phenomenon can have devastating effects. The events have been tied to collapses in anchovy fisheries in Peru and drought conditions over parts of Australia.

In Indonesia, the current El Niño has already been tied to health impacts from poor air quality. In typical years, monsoonal rains arrive in September. This year, they didn’t arrive until October.  

“During El Niño years, particularly strong ones like we’re seeing this year, the dry season is longer and drier than normal, and when that happens, it allows the landscape to dry out,” said Robert Field, an associate research scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The extended dry season also extended the amount of time that fires set to clear land for agriculture were able to burn. Hazy conditions from the smoke reduced visibility in some areas by 95 percent.

“It’s horrible on the ground. The air quality measurements were absolutely off the charts,” Field said.

Lingering pollution byproducts from the fires were shown to have spread throughout much of the Indian Ocean. Field said it’s possible some of the pollutants may have spread to the East Coast of North America.

Tweeted image of carbon monoxide

Rains have arrived, but Field said it’s possible the El Niño may cause a second dry season over parts of Borneo.

“One concern I have is that as the current burning subsides with the return of the rain over the main part of Indonesia, that people will let their guard down and not be prepared for the second event in February,” Field said.

He said the ability to forecast El Niño’s effects on the fires back in June made it more tragic that the fires burned to the extent that they did.

“I really do think that the severity would’ve been less if there had been more advanced preparation,” Field said.