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El Niño

Change is in the Air

Published in the EarthSphere Blog

We have been graced with the pleasurable company of La Niña for the past three years, helping to keep the Pacific NW moister and sparking increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean. The fact is, three consecutive years of La Niña conditions is quite unusual. Individual episodes of La Niña and her brother El Niño usually don’t last that long. These brother and sister weather conditions are alternating phases of a natural Pacific Ocean weather pattern called the “El Niño-Southern Oscillation” (ENSO). NOAA announced in February that during the spring and summer of 2023, we would probably move into ENSO-neutral conditions, followed by the long-awaited arrival of the baby boy, El Niño.

El Niño, meaning the little boy or Christ child in Spanish, gets its name from the tendency for El Niño conditions to peak during December, near Christmas. The culmination of a two-year El Niño in 2016 resulted in Earth’s hottest year on record, indicating that 2023 could be a burner. “Could be” is the operative term since long-range weather predictions are notoriously unpredictable.

ENSO conditions are driven by the wind. Equatorial trade winds in the Pacific blow from east to west and act as the catalyst for ENSO changes. La Niña starts along the western coast of South America when the trade winds are strong. These winds push the ocean’s warm surface water westward, causing colder water from the ocean’s depths to upwell and fill the void. The resulting cold-water wedge follows behind the retreating warm water, forming an elongated plume stretching from South America to the western Pacific, and La Nina arrives. But when the winds are weak, they fail to effectively move the surface water, and heat from the sun accumulates, warming the ocean’s surface and bringing us El Niño.

The Spring Barrier

We can safely say that meteorology and weather predictions fall into the realm of science. Data is collected and analyzed, leading to theories on climatic patterns and the development of predictive models about how future weather patterns may develop. So the recent NOAA announcement is not a definitive declaration that El Niño will come, but a probability prediction that it is likely to come.

Experience has taught meteorologists a measure of caution in predicting ENSO conditions. They even give a name to the period of time when predictions are the most unreliable; the Spring Predictability Barrier. Think of this period from April to June as the snow-globe phase of a crystal ball. When you gaze into the crystal ball to see the future, your visibility is diminished by a cloud of fuzzy static. Your chances of accurately predicting the future ENSO direction are reduced.

Unfortunately for students in Florida, they may not get the chance to learn about ENSO, El Niño, and La Niña.

Foggy Conditions in Florida

An educational fog is forming over Florida. In their wisdom, Republican legislators have introduced HB 999, which seeks to ban “curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content.” Holy crap, let me say that again: HB 999 seeks to ban “curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content.

Thinking this through, which obviously isn’t a strong point for these legislators, we can see the teaching of physics must disappear from Florida’s curriculum. Until quantum mechanics arrived, Newtonian physics was the last word, a fact, so to speak. This revered status disappeared when scientists observed that Newtonian theory breaks down at the quantum level. Adding insult to injury, quantum mechanics doesn’t even have a unifying theoretical basis, only the Standard Model. This whole mess sounds like a lot of unproven, theoretical, exploratory content. We can’t have our kids learning that sort of stuff.

The situation is perhaps even direr. Nothing about the future can be taught in Florida. Projecting anything into the future is a theoretical or exploratory process. All predictions of the future are unproven, probabilistic extrapolations (exploratory content). Much like Schrödinger’s probability wave, all probable paths into the future collapse into a solid fact when the present moment arrives. Before the present moment, it is all probabilistic speculation. The message is clear. Let’s stop talking about the future and return to the past, where we can be great again.

Unfortunately, meteorology is also a scientific endeavor relying on theoretical and exploratory content. The Florida educational fog and the Spring Barrier both limit our ability to predict. Fortunately for those of us outside of Florida, we will have more clarity about El Niño in June. Florida students will only be able to ponder where the extra heat is coming from if El Niño develops.

Heat and Change

Grist gave us an alarming slant on the possible effects of a strong 2023 in its recent headlines, “A looming El Niño could give us a preview of life at 1.5C of warming.” The article discusses deleterious El Niño effects ranging from the Amazon rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Pacific Ocean is the planet’s largest ocean, and changes there have a knock-on effect across the rest of the planet. Unlike Las Vegas, what goes on in the Pacific does not stay in the Pacific. ENSO fluctuations are one of the most important climatic phenomena on Earth, driving global weather changes. El Niño usually brings wetter conditions to the Southern United States and dryer weather to the northern states.

El Niño is also linked to fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic ocean, colder winters in Europe, more wildfires in Australia, drought in India, and slower carbon update in South America. Above all, it often brings record-breaking heat to planet Earth. The hottest global temperatures in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s all occurred in El Niño years. But its effects don’t stop with the climate.

Warm Pacific surface waters mean less upwelling of cold, deep, nutrient-rich water along the west coast of the Americas. Fewer nutrients translate into less food for phytoplankton at the base of the oceanic food chain. Reduced ocean productivity at the base of the food web affects every ocean-dependent species up the chain, including humans.

El Niño may be coming, and if it does, there are few places on Earth to run and hide from its effects.


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William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.