Welp, We Might Get Another El Niño This Fall

The 1997 Super El Niño was lit.
The 1997 Super El Niño was lit.
Image: NASA

My eastern tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures watchers, get hype. An El Niño Watch is in effect.


The climate phenomenon that starts with warmer than normal waters in the eastern tropical Pacific and alters weather around the world has a pretty good chance of forming later this year. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which announced the watch on Thursday, there’s a 50 percent chance El Niño conditions will emerge this fall. The odds go up to 65 percent by the time winter rolls around.

The agency issues watches when “when conditions are favorable for the development of El Niño or La Niña conditions within the next six months.” Right now, models are showing a weak-to-moderate El Niño could be in the cards. But it’s way to early to speculate on the flavor of El Niño we could get at this point, which is about as useful as definitively saying where Lebron is going to end up (please let it be the Celtics).

But we can talk about why the odds are tipping toward El Niño. For one, ocean temperatures just below the surface are pretty toasty. Subsurface heat content this May was the sixth-warmest on record for the month.

Heat below the surface does not an El Niño make, though—you’ve got to get that hot water to the surface. Looking at the average temperatures on the surface of the tropical Pacific shows that things are decidedly neutral right now. However, there are key differences when you look on either side of the equator that could provide an opening for that subsurface heat to peek through.

The Pacific is a bit warmer than normal to the north, and cooler than normal to the south. This pattern is the positive phase of what’s known as the Pacific Meridional Mode. And it matters because the trade winds—which blow from east to west along the equator—tend to weaken during this positive phase. That could, in turn, let the warm water beneath the surface work its way east and eventually burble up to the surface

It will take months for these processes to play out, which is why we’re only in an El Niño Watch. But if El Niño does emerge, it could be a bit deal, because the pattern has a number of impacts on the world’s weather.


If El Niño forms in fall, it could put the kibosh on the tail end of hurricane season: El Niño tends to increase upper level winds that can inhibit hurricane formation in the Atlantic basin. El Niño also generally means more precipitation along the southern tier of the U.S. and drier conditions in the Northwest during the winter.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Good stuff, Brian.

If there’s a climate scientists reading this dumb comment, please set me straight on how tight the relationship is between El Nino and global (regional, too) average annual temperature.

El Nino really seems to ramp up temperatures both globally and regionally, but especially North America. The two big El Nino years were 1997/1998 and 2015/2016. There were others in between, but not as intense.

Global temperature - annual average 1950 to 2017 - there’s some serious temperature spikes correlating with EL Nino.

North America temperature spikes seem almost completely corrilated to El Nino

Jesus, North America temp and El Nino events are almost nuts on.

My sermon:

The obvious is important to make obvious. The climate change deniers headed by the usual jagoffs like Heartland Institute were successful at spreading fake news, saying that climate change was over since global average temps hadn’t increased since 1998. Then of course the 2015 El Nino hit and boy o’ boy did global temps ramp up again.

Moral of the story:

Keep hammering the fundamentals of climate science to those of us who care, Brian and Earther. Climate change deniers are well funded, mean as fuck and smart as whips. Their careers count on well done fake news and silliness spread to the easily befuddled. Not everybody is going to give a shit, but for those that do (me), make sure that we’re all well educated. Over and over and over again. Repeat. Make elements of climate science memory muscle.

End of sermon.