Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

Back in October, Planet Expert Chris Lowe wrote that the California coast has seen quite a few out-of-the-ordinary visitors in the past year, including hammerheads, whale sharks, manta rays, blue marlin and pods of sperm and pilot whales.

“All of these charismatic megafuana,” wrote Dr. Lowe, “are normally found in warmer southern waters off Baja. So, why are they here and now? The simple answer is they follow prey that are common in warmer waters, and this summer southern California waters got quite warm and have stayed warm.”

While Lowe acknowledged that “the presence of these large subtropical marine creatures is certainly indicative of an impending El Niño,” official weather and marine surveillance agencies were not quite ready to declare one.

This is because warmer waters, though historically a sign of El Niño, are becoming more common across the planet. As Dr. John Abraham, professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas, has explained, oceans are now warming so quickly they are “breaking scientists’ charts.” The oceans absorb about 90 percent of the Earth’s “global warming heat,” which has led to warmer oceans, uncharacteristic or unseasonal animal migrations and severe coral bleaching events around Florida and throughout the Pacific Ocean.

And while this means that the oceans have warmed more than the atmosphere (leading some to declare, as Dr. Michael Mann put it, a global warming “faux pause”), 2014 still managed to be the hottest year on record – according to NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA).

So were the hammerheads swimming around Catalina “heralds of El Niño,” asked Dr. Lowe, or actually “harbingers of climate change?”

Well, it seems like a little of both, and I’ll tell you why.

El Niño Is Here

Last week, NOAA announced that El Niño has officially arrived. It’s been a long time coming, and for a while almost all the indicators were right, but weather is a tricky beast.

As Dr. Emily Becker, a research contractor with NOAA, writes, “For the last few months, we’ve been seeing some suggestions of borderline atmospheric El Niño conditions, but until this month we were below that borderline. This month, we’ve finally crept above it, and thus NOAA is declaring the onset of El Niño conditions.”

Ocean Surface

Let’s define what “the boy” is. It is an irregularly occurring change in climate around the Pacific equatorial region that can shift global weather patterns or, to put it more simply, it puts the “wickety” in the “wack” weather, man. Typically beginning in December, it occurs perhaps two or three times per decade. It is a natural feature of the Earth’s climate.

However, unnatural changes to the Earth’s climate may make for a similarly unnatural El Niño.

The Smithsonian has noted that Niños usually develop in mid-summer and not early spring, rendering predictions for this latest one somewhat opaque.

Why 2015 May Be a Scorcher

Remember how Winter Storm Juno walloped the East Coast with over 30 inches of snow in over 54 locations? Believe it or not, that frigid fun was brought to you by global warming. As I explained back in January, Juno pulled warm air from the southeast and the Gulf of Mexico and generated a huge amount of snow from the condensation produced by the humid, southern air hitting the nor’easter’s Arctic winds. And, because warm water is now extending deeper into the ocean, Juno had a much bigger energy source to pull from – allowing it to thrash New England for a goodly while.

As meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote in Slate, an already-warm ocean may exacerbate this year’s El Niño, both in intensity and duration. “El Niño transfers huge amounts of heat from the oceans to the atmosphere,” he explained, “and there are hints that this El Niño, combined with the already very warm global oceans, could bring about a new phase in global warming.”

Chart of abnormal ocean surface temperatures [ºC] observed in December 1997 during the last strong El Niño. (Image: NOAA)

Chart of abnormal ocean surface temperatures [ºC] observed in December 1997 during the last strong El Niño. (Image: NOAA)

“The boy” is also butting up against another meteorological phenomenon, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. (For a fuller explanation of the PDO, you can learn why and how it’s about to give global warming a boost here. For the most thorough version of the same, read Planet Expert and Penn State’s Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Michael Mann’s article here.) Essentially, the PDO has been masking how much warming the Earth is really experiencing because, while in its negative phase, it makes burying that heat in the ocean much easier. But the PDO is just a few years from flipping its phase, which means a lot more of our “global warming heat” is about to fill the atmosphere.

Holthaus describes exactly why this is bad news for your air conditioning bill: “A persistently strong PDO is associated with cold winters in the East and drought in California—we’ve had both in abundance this year. Should the PDO stay strong, it’ll essentially join forces with El Niño and increase the odds that 2015 will rank as the warmest year on record globally.”

NOAA forecasts a 50-60 percent chance that El Niño conditions will continue through the spring. Though weak, it may lead to even warmer sea surface temperatures.

So make sure you’ve got your sunscreen handy and try your best to stay cool out there, Planeteers. El Niño es no frío.

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2 Responses

  1. ella penn says:

    I live in Florida, and will be thinking regularly about
    the accuracy of your prediction. Very well written and
    interesting article; I will forward the link to my friends
    here in Florida.

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