Surface temperatures across a key part of the equatorial Pacific could peak at 2.4C degrees above normal in December, January and February, which would match the 1997-98 event and fall just below 2015-16’s 2.6 degrees.
The question, however, is what this will mean for the world’s weather in a year that has seen record hot ocean water the world over.
“When El Niño is clearly the loudest voice in the room, as it was during the 1997–98 El Niño, the atmospheric response is clear,’’ Emily Becker, a climatologist and co-author of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ENSO Blog. “However, when the western Pacific and the rest of the tropics are also warm, the response may be more muddled.”
This is the open question. In the Atlantic, for example, El Niño is linked with rising wind shear during the height of hurricane season. This can mean fewer storms in the world’s second largest ocean.
This year that hasn’t happened. Record warm conditions across large parts of the Atlantic have fueled 17 storms, including an unnamed January system, in 2023, which is above the long-term average of 14. And yet a system currently in the Atlantic — Tropical Storm Philippe — is encountering some shear that is set to weaken it before it gets to Puerto Rico early Monday.
Even so, there is no evidence the Atlantic is going to stop raging any time soon. A new tropical system could spin up there in the next two days.
Meanwhile in Panama, it is a different story, drought there has crimped shipping through the famous canal. This is a well-known impact of El Niño that can be traced back hundreds of years, before scientists even had a way to measure water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.
“It is a robust signal; Panama gets dry during El Niño events,’’ Braddock Linsley, professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in an interview earlier this year.
Linsley and his colleague Logan Brenner, a professor of environmental science at Barnard College, have been studying coral off the coast of Panama for many years. The chemical composition of the coral changes to match the ebb and flow of rains running off into the Pacific. As droughts are tied to El Niño, the coral provides a pretty good record on what the Pacific has a whole has been doing going back to 1710.
How this plays out could have dire consequences for Australia, where drought and wildfires are more common during El Niños, and for the southern US, which sees stormier and cooler winters. It could even mean more snow in New York City.
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