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posted: 4/12/2014 9:01 AM

El Nino could grow into a monster, data show

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  • The odds are increasing that an El Nino is in the works for 2014 -- and recent forecasts show it might be a big one. But the most important thing about El Nino is that it is predictable, sometimes six months to a year in advance.

      The odds are increasing that an El Nino is in the works for 2014 -- and recent forecasts show it might be a big one. But the most important thing about El Nino is that it is predictable, sometimes six months to a year in advance.
    Associated Press

 
By Eric Holthaus, Slate

The odds are increasing that an El Nino is in the works for 2014 -- and recent forecasts show it might be a big one.

As we learned from Chris Farley, El Ninos can boost the odds of extreme weather (droughts, typhoons, heat waves) across much of the planet. But the most important thing about El Nino is that it is predictable, sometimes six months to a year in advance.

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That's an incredibly powerful tool, especially if you are one of the billions who live where El Nino tends to hit hardest -- Asia and the Americas. If current forecasts stay on track, El Nino might end up being the biggest global weather story of 2014.

The most commonly accepted definition of an El Nino is a persistent warming of the so-called "Nino 3.4" region of the tropical Pacific Ocean south of Hawaii, lasting for at least five consecutive three-month "seasons." A recent reversal in the direction of the Pacific trade winds appears to have kicked off a warming trend during the last month or two. That was enough to prompt U.S. government forecasters to issue an El Nino watch last month.

Forecasters are increasingly confident in a particularly big El Nino this time around because, deep below the Pacific Ocean's surface, off-the-charts warm water is lurking: a huge subsurface wave of anomalously warm water that currently spans the tropical Pacific Ocean -- big enough to cover the United States 300 feet deep. That's a lot of warm water.

As that blob of warm water moves eastward, propelled by the anomalous trade winds, it's also getting closer to the ocean's surface. Once that happens, it will begin to interact with the atmosphere, boosting temperatures and changing weather patterns.

There are signs that this huge pool of subsurface warmth is starting to emerge on the surface in recent days, which means that April 2014 could be the month the mega El Nino gets officially underway.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, meteorologist Cliff Mass warns that this time of year is known for lower performance in forecasting El Ninos. But in general, scientists who follow these things are anticipating what could become a strong event.

"We're carefully watching the potential development of an El Nino later this spring and into summer," said forecaster Tony Barnston of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society in a recorded briefing message. "Below the surface we have a lot of warming and that could eventually make its way to the surface and create an El Nino."

The warm water just below the ocean's surface is on par with that of the biggest El Nino ever recorded, in 1997-98. That event caused $35 billion in damages and was blamed for around 23,000 deaths worldwide, according to the University of New South Wales. The 1997-98 El Nino is also the only other time since records began in 1980 that subsurface Pacific Ocean water has been this warm in April.

Here's what else we could expect:

• A severe drought continues to rage in and around Indonesia, which an El Nino would likely worsen.

• Peru's anchovy catch may be significantly affected should a strong El Nino materialize.

• Australia's ongoing battles with bush fires may be intensified once its dry season resumes later this year.

But perhaps the strangest impact so far has been in India, where monsoon forecasting is at the heart of national politics. The meteorology department there has accused U.S. weather forecasters of "spreading rumors" and colluding to ruin the Indian stock market by forecasting a return of El Nino.

There's a bit of good news, too: Hurricane seasons in the Atlantic tend to be less severe under this kind of forecast. And people in drought-stricken California could be forgiven if they're crossing their fingers for a strong El Nino, which is linked to some of the wettest years in state history. Still, it's certainly no slam dunk that an El Nino would be enough to end the crippling drought there or even bring above normal rainfall. And if the El Nino ends up being as strong as current predictions indicate, there's a chance it may even tip the scales from drought to deluge across the state, spurring damaging mudslides amid bursts of heavy rain. The two strongest El Ninos in the last 30 years -- 1982-83 and 1997-98 -- both caused widespread damage from flooding in California.

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