Ocean, atmospheric conditions over tropical Pacific show signs of strong El Niño, WMO says

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Scientists Predict This Year's El Nino Will Be Strongest on Record


Ocean and atmospheric conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean in August 2015 had characteristics of a strong El Niño, according to a report released this week by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The WMO said the majority of climate models and experts expect that El Niño will continue to strengthen through the rest of 2015, peaking between October and January. At its height, this El Niño could be among the top four strongest events on record since 1950, the WMO said.

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The last strong El Niño occurred in 1997-98. Since then, there has been a reduction in the amount of Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere snow cover, which introduces another factor in what to expect.

David Carlson, director of WMO's World Climate Research program said, "We have had years of record Arctic sea ice minimum. We have lost a massive area of Northern Hemisphere snow cover, probably by more than 1 million square kilometers in the past 15 years. We are working on a different planet and we fully do not understand the new patterns emerging."

See photos of the effects from El Niño:

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Ocean, atmospheric conditions over tropical Pacific show signs of strong El Niño, WMO says
NOAA has released an update to its El Niño advisory. This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Niño. This event is forecast to continue through the winter, likely ranking as one of the top 3 strongest events since 1950, before fading in late spring or early summer. El Niño has already produced significant global impacts, and is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months. Seasonal outlooks generally favor below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern tier of the United States. (Photo via NOAA)
MAKASSAR, SOUTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA - SEPTEMBER 21: Two girls are seen walk behind of dried up ricefield at Manggara Bombang village, Maros district on September 21, 2015 in Makassar, Indonesia. Indonesia's national disaster management agency has declared that the majority of the country's 34 provinces are experiencing drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, the worst drought in the past five years. The dry season forces villagers to walk long distances to find clean water. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)
NOAA issued an update to the El Niño analysis on September 10, 2015, in which forecasters from the Climate Predication Center say a strong El Niño is in place and likely to peak in late fall/early winter, and gradually weaken through spring 2016. This image shows the satellite-based average sea surface temperature data from the week of August 31 - September 6, 2015. Blue areas are cooler than the 1981-2010 average; red areas are warmer than that historical base period. The large pool of warmer than average temperatures along the equatorial Pacific is indicative of the El Niño conditions. (Photo via NOAA)
Sea surface temperature anomalies in November 1997 (left) compared to July 2015 (right). (Photo via NOAA)
A couple tries to cool off from the heat caused by El Nino with water overflowing from a defunct but still watery reservoir called the Wawa dam in Montalban in Rizal, east of Manila on February 21, 2010. El Niño was expected to dehydrate the Metro Manila area over in the next two months, according to the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Earlier this month the government warned a possible drought caused by the El Nino weather system could slash Philippines rice yields this year. AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tons of dead fish are seen on the banks of the Solimoes River due the water's low level, November 25, 2009 near Manaquiri, 120Km from Manaus. The dry season, affected by the weather phenomenon EL Nino, is worse this year. According a study from Brazil's universities USP,UNICAMP,UFRJ and Embrapa, the country could lose some USD 3.6 billion over the next 40 years. AFP PHOTO / ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavy clouds covers Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta on November 29, 2009. The month of November ends the dry season and starts the wet period but the weather bureau anticipates El Nino's dry spell to affect Indonesian weather. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
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"We have no precedent. Climate change is increasingly going to put us in this situation. We don't have a previous event like this," he said.

El Niño is an anomalous, yet periodic, warming of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. For reasons still not well understood, every two to seven years, this patch of ocean warms for six to 18 months.

The fact that El Niño is likely to last into spring is important for the United States since precipitation and temperature impacts from a moderate-to-strong El Niño are typically most noticeable during the colder months. We have more on what those impacts are later in this article.

We've likely already seen some impacts from El Niño this summer. For example, a record number of named storms have developed during the central Pacific hurricane season - a basin where we typically see an uptick in tropical activity during El Niño. We've also seen strong wind shear near the Caribbean which is also typical of El Niño, and contributed to the demise ofTropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Danny in August.

(MORE: Nearing Record Number Category 4 and 5 Storms)

The WMO report is similar to the El Niño forecast update released by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Aug. 13. NOAA's forecaster consensus unaminously favors a strong El Niño at its peak in the late fall and early winter.

In that forecast update, NOAA said El Niño has an 85 percent chance of lasting into early spring 2016. This is an increase of 5 percent over NOAA's last El Niño update in July. NOAA also said that there is a greater than 90 percent chance of El Niño lasting through the upcoming winter.

NOAA reported that sea-surface temperature anomalies increased in July in the Niño 3.4 region. This is the middle portion of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that is most commonly used to measure the intensity of an El Niño event.

What does warm water have to do with your weather? A 'Sea Change' in Atmospheric Circulation

Typically, easterly trade winds near the equator pile warm water into the western Pacific Ocean. Conversely, the resultant upwelling, or upward movement of deep, cold ocean water keeps the eastern and central Pacific Ocean cooler.

Thunderstorms require at least some degree of warm, humid air near the surface, so they're more numerous and persistent over the western Pacific warm pool, and much less so in the eastern equatorial Pacific.

During an El Niño, these trade winds weaken, and may at times reverse from west to east. Warmer western Pacific water then slowly sloshes back toward the central, even eastern Pacific Ocean in what's known as an equatorial-trapped Kelvin wave.

Therefore, the most persistent thunderstorms will shift from the western to the eastern and central Pacific Ocean in an El Niño.

This trade wind reversal and the resulting reorientation of thunderstorms changes the atmospheric circulation not just over this swath of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, but can also have far-reaching impacts on the atmospheric circulation.

Weather Impacts

First, keep two things in mind throughout this discussion of potential impacts:

1) El Niño is not the sole driver of the atmosphere at any time. Day-to-day variability in the weather pattern, including blocking patterns, forcing from climate change and other factors all work together with El Niño to determine the overall weather experienced over the timeframe of a few months.

2) No two El Niños are exactly alike. The intensity matters for impacts.

El Niño's clearest impact on northern hemisphere weather patterns occurs from late fall through winter.

Looking at past moderate-strong El Ninos, here are the upshots for temperatures and precipitation from late fall through winter in the U.S.:

- Wetter: Southern U.S. from California to the Carolinas then up parts of the East Coast

- Drier: Parts of the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Northwest and Northern Rockies

- Cooler: Desert Southwest, Southern Plains, northern Gulf Coast

- Warmer: Northern tier of states from the Pacific Northwest to the Northern Plains, Great Lakes, and Northeast

Note these are impacts that are typically expected, but they aren't always the rule.

Residents of the western states may remember the flooding that struck California during the strong 1997-98 El Nino. In February 1998, a series of storms caused an estimated $550 million in damage and killed 17 people in California. A total of 35 counties were declared federal disaster areas. This fits into the bucket of the wetter-than-average winter you would typically expect in a moderate or strong El Niño.

Interestingly, during the previous winter there was also major flooding in California and it was even more costly with a total price tag of $1.8 billion, according to Jan Null, a consulting meteorologist in California. However, El Niño was not present that winter and rainfall for the season was near average. The flooding was the result of excessive rainfall that fell in a short time period combined with snowmelt from late December to early January.

The weak El Niño in the winter of 2006-07 provided a totally different story than what we saw in the very strong 1997-98 El Niño winter.

California had its 23rd driest winter season on record when looking at the three-month period from December 2006 to February 2007. In Los Angeles, the entire water year from July 2006 to June 2007 was the driest on record with just 3.21 inches of rainfall.

So, those hoping for drought relief next winter in the Golden State shouldn't immediately draw a conclusion that significant rains are ahead in any El Niño year. The strength of the El Niño can play a role in the outcome. In addition, heavy rainfall can occur with or without El Niño present and that was the case in the winter preceding the strong 1997-1998 El Niño.

What About Hurricane Season?

There is a body of scientific evidence linking the occurrence of El Niño with increased wind shear in the tropical Atlantic Basin, which is one factor – along with dry air – that limits the development and strengthening of tropical cyclones.

So far this season, we have seen those hostile conditions in parts of the Atlantic Basin. As mentioned before, wind shear and dry air contributed to the demise of both Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Danny near the Caribbean.

During the 2013 hurricane season, 14 storms formed, but only two reached hurricane strength. Neither of these hurricanes reached major hurricane status, which is defined as Category 3 or stronger on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

When considering overall season activity via the ACE index, 2013 was the least active Atlantic hurricane season since 1994. There was no El Niño in place in 2013.

Now, consider the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season. Four hurricanes - Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - hammered Florida in less than six weeks. There were 15 storms and nine hurricanes that season, which is an active one by any measure, and it developed despite a weak El Niño.

Taken together, the five El Niño hurricane seasons since 1995 averaged about 11 storms, 5 hurricanes, and 2-3 major hurricanes, a reduction of four storms, 3 hurricanes, and 1-2 major hurricanes from the average since 1995.

Prior to the current active phase of Atlantic hurricane activity (pre-1995), there were several other relatively slow hurricane seasons: 1982, 1986, 1987, 1991 and 1994. The 1982 season was particularly inactive, with only six tropical storms and two hurricanes. The next year, despite one of the strongest El Niños on record finally fading by early summer, only four storms formed the entire season.

Exactly where the equatorial Pacific Ocean warms in an El Niño matters, as well.

Warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific: lower numbers of Atlantic tropical cyclones

As we've stated, El Niño is only one driver of the atmospheric circulation. Wind shear over the Atlantic Basin may be less on some days, despite being higher when averaged over an entire season.

While we have focused on numbers of storms and hurricanes, it's ultimately a storm's path that matters for impact.

"Even if we get a strong El Niño, that doesn't mean no U.S impacts (from hurricanes or tropical storms)," says Dr. Phil Klotzbach, a tropical meteorologist and researcher at Colorado State University.

Klotzbach notes that Hurricane Betsy hit both Louisiana and Florida in 1965 and Agnes flooded out the eastern U.S. in 1972, both during strong El Niños. All it takes is one intense, landfalling hurricane to make many forget an El Niño was even there.

Meanwhile, the eastern, central and western Pacific Basins remain very active. At one point in mid-July we had six active tropical cyclones across the Pacific Ocean at the same time.

Colorado State University tropical scientist Phil Klotzbach found tropical cyclones are about three times more likely to impact Hawaii in El Niño years vs. La Nina years.

So far this season, a record five named storms have developed in the central Pacific basin (Halola, Ela, Iune, Kilo and Loke). In addition, four named storms have crossed into the central Pacific from the eastern Pacific (Guillermo, Hilda, Ignacio and Jimena).

Fortunately, Hawaii has missed out on significant impacts other than high surf from the storms that have passed close to the islands so far.

Ultimately, this El Niño will exert some influence on the numbers. However, all it takes is one tropical cyclone making landfall in a populated area to change perceptions of an active season.

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