The world has definitively escaped one of the most powerful El Niños on record. After a stalled beginning, it commenced its wicked ways in March 2015 and lasted until sometime earlier this summer.
Its driving mechanism – warm water upwelling and spreading into the eastern Pacific Ocean – was thought to have terminated back in June according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Now, NASA has also declared that Pacific sea surface temperatures have officially stabilized. Their cutting-edge models indicate that the equatorial Pacific Ocean should be at “normal” temperatures from September onwards.
Most potent El Niños are followed by an opposing La Niña, wherein the eastern Pacific experiences far colder than normal water temperatures. However, perhaps due to the extreme nature of this particular El Niño, these cold waters won’t be appearing this time around.
“We are consistently predicting a more neutral state, with no La Niña or El Niño later this year,” said Steven Pawson, chief of NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, in a statement.
If you haven’t noticed, things have been pretty warm recently, and the ex-El Niño is partly to blame. NASA’s original modeling for the 2015-16 climatic phenomenon was initially seen to be incredibly excessive, but as it unfolded before them, they were proven right.
It exacerbated extreme weather across the world, and 100 million people were left without food and water. It also contributed towards the unbelievably consistent temperature highs.
Indeed, we've been running out of different ways to tell you that, month on month, it has been the hottest on record. In fact, according to NASA, August is the 11th consecutive record-breaking month in terms of temperature. The NOAA data set indicates that it could be the 15th in a row.
Sea surface temperature anomalies, tracking the upwelling of warmer-than-average water in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. NASA
So far, 2016 is the hottest year in recorded history by quite a margin, and already it’s featured some pretty unusual events. Back-to-back Hawaiian hurricanes, typhoons that are 15 percent stronger than ever before, massive wildfires, extremely early melting in Greenland, and brand new meltwater pools over in the normally frigid Eastern Antarctic are but a few examples.
El Niño certainly played its part in some of these events. However, climate scientists agree that even one of the strongest El Niños on record pales in comparison to the way humanity is altering the climate.
Thanks to our remarkably efficient ability to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we are changing the world’s climate at an unprecedented rate. As a result, we are reaping the whirlwind through sea-level rise, powerful natural disasters, crop failure, economic losses and even war.
Sure, ocean temperatures have risen thanks to El Niño, and higher temperatures fuel stronger tropical cyclones. However, if we didn’t have the oceans to absorb 90 percent of the excess heat we’d generated, the rate of temperature change in the 20th century wouldn’t have been 10 times above what would naturally be expected, but a devastating 360 times.
Make no mistake – we are the culprits here. Still, the groundbreaking (if imperfect) Paris agreement has been ratified by China and the US, renewable energy sources are on the rise, and support for climate change mitigation is at an all-time high.
Global temperature anomaly tracking, based on the 1980 - 2015 annual average. NASA