El Niño 2015 Is The Strongest On Record, And Climate Change May Make It Worse

El Niño has already proven to be quite a doozy this year and may even have a place among the top three strongest since 1950. That means this winter could be a wild ride for much of the U.S.

This winter’s El Niño may also be a bit unpredictable since the effect of climate change on El Niño has never been seen before. Quite simply, the climate pattern has never operated in such a warm world, and scientists don’t know what will happen when they collide.

According to Live Science, El Niño carries warm water to the west coast of South America. This water evaporates, and thus creates a moister atmosphere that then builds Pacific hurricanes. Patricia, that monster October storm that became the most powerful ever in recorded history, was made this way. El Niño has complex consequences in our weather — the southern half of the U.S. gets very wet, while Hawaii, Australia, India, and Brazil tend to dry up.

So what is this tell-tale data that signals to meteorologists that 2015’s El Niño is a whopper of a climate pattern? The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) measured surface water temperatures in the east-central Pacific and found an average, over three months, of 3.6 degrees above normal.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the temperature of this key spot in the ocean surpassed temperatures recorded during the 1997 El Niño — the previous champ. Specifically, during the week of November 11, the temperature rose to 5.4 degrees above average; in 1997, the temperature peaked at five degrees above average.

MASA Climatologist Bill Patzert said El Niño 2015 is just getting started.

“This thing is still growing and it’s definitely warmer than it was in 1997. It’s now bypassed the previous champ of the modern satellite era — the 1997 El Niño has just been toppled by 2015. (And) it does look like it’s possible that there’s still additional warming [to come].”

And El Niño has already done a good bit of damage.

The tropics and subtropics have experienced drought; and in Africa, drought is expected to put millions at risk of hunger. El Niño is blamed for wildfires in Indonesia; floods in Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma; fewer Atlantic hurricanes but more in the Pacific; and coral bleaching.

“It’s not as if we’re waiting for El Niño to actually manifest itself — it has in many ways already,” Patzert said. “There is no doubt: It’s coming.”

Though 2015 has already experienced El Niño, scientists expect its rains to be the worst in January, February, and March, with the “active pattern” of storms starting up in December. Of course, it’s possible that the 2015 reading is only a blip or the peak that begins a gradual decay, the Washington Post added.

Then there’s the complicated matter of climate change to consider, which right now is more of a giant question mark for meteorologists — and a game of wait and see.

“This event is playing out in uncharted territory,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change, the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometers of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere. Even before the onset of El Niño, global average surface temperatures had reached new records.”

Climate change may cause warm waters from the eastern equatorial to shift to the central Pacific, possibly altering El Niño’s atmospheric patterns and making separate weather pattern La Nina more extreme.

“[T]his naturally occurring El Niño event and human-induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced. Even before the onset of El Niño, global average surface temperatures had reached new records. El Niño is turning up the heat even further.”

[Image via Harvepino/Shutterstock]