Environment

El Niño Is Still Growing And Set To Get Even Stronger In The Next Few Months

January 4, 2016 | by Josh L Davis

Photo credit: Comparison between the current El Niño (left) and the one that hit in 1997 (right). NASA.

As we move into the New Year, it looks like El Niño is set to get worse, according to NASA, as the weather system is still growing. The strong winds currently going from the western to eastern Pacific that are driving El Niño are showing no signs of waning, with other data on ocean surface temperatures suggesting that it still hasn’t reached its peak yet. The weather system has been implicated in the fires that have spread across much of Indonesia, the floods that have hit large parts of South America, and the Indian heat wave, all seen in 2015.

Researchers are expecting the effects of the system to hit the United States over the next few months, ushering in a period of cool and wet conditions in the southern U.S., while things could be turning warmer and drier over the north of the country. These predictions are based on the last massive El Niño to have occurred back in 1997. The development of the current event bears a striking resemblance to that which occurred 19 years ago, which created a dramatic ice storm over New England and caused chaos along the Gulf Coast.

California, which has been wracked by drought for the past five years, might be in for a heavy deluge. “The water story for much of the American West over most of the past decade has been dominated by punishing drought,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “Reservoir levels have fallen to record or near-record lows, while groundwater tables have dropped dangerously in many areas. Now we’re preparing to see the flip side of nature’s water cycle – the arrival of steady, heavy rains and snowfall.”    

But while this could sound like a relief for California, it still might not enough to break the drought. The rains from El Niño only contribute to a fraction of California’s water source, and following a heavy El Niño is often a strong La Niña, which could bring the opposite weather effects. The continuation of the current weather system could also further delay and weaken rains right across Southeast Asia and down into Australia, leading to food and water shortages for millions living throughout the Pacific.   

In addition to the predictions based on the intense 1997 event, other research has found that the influence of clouds on atmospheric circulation make up over half of the strength of El Niño and La Niña. They found that climate models that failed to take into account cloud movement showed lower variability in ocean surface temperatures, which would indicate a weaker El Niño, but when clouds were taken into account, variability increased, and thus the predicted strength of the weather event.    

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