Another El Niño on the horizon?

December 7, 2018, European Space Agency
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The jury is still out as to whether climate change will lead to stronger El Niño events, but while representatives from around 200 countries at the COP24 conference are working to breathe life into the 2105 Paris Agreement, there is a 75–80 percent chance that a fully-fledged event could be with us in the next couple of months.

El Niño and its cooler cousin, La Niña, are complex naturally occurring climatic phenomena – and nobody really knows if our changing climate will affect them.

El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of what is known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and occur at irregular intervals of between two and seven years.

As the animation above shows, the first signs of an El Niño are a weakening of the Trade Winds and warmer than usual sea-surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. This not only affects fisheries off the coast of South America, but leads to a disruption in around the world.

These changing weather patterns can cause heatwaves, drought, wildfires and flooding in different places.

Often, a year after an El Niño, the pendulum swings back and La Niña occurs when the Trade Winds strengthen and surface waters cool in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

According to the World Meteorological Organization there is a 75–80 percent chance of a fully-fledged El Niño starting within the next couple of months.

El Niño and La Niña. Credit: ESA/Planetary Visions

Satellite measurements are essential to help predict El Niño and to monitor the effects of an event.

For example, thermal infrared sensors in the Copernicus Sentinel-3 satellites' sea and land surface temperature radiometer measure changes in the temperature of the sea-surface.

Also, by profiling Earth's wind, ESA's newly-launched Aeolus missions is expected to help predict these events.

While scientists know that El Niño contributes to an increase in , they don't know if rising global and ocean temperatures can, in turn, intensify El Niño.

In time, it is hoped that satellites orbiting above will help solve this puzzle, but in the meantime they are key to predicting and monitoring events on the horizon.

Explore further: Getting a longer heads-up on El Nino

Related Stories

Getting a longer heads-up on El Nino

October 15, 2018

Changes in Atlantic Ocean sea surface temperatures can be used to predict extreme climatic variations known as El Niño and La Niña more than a year in advance, according to research conducted at Korea's Pohang University ...

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

April 15, 2014

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

Future impacts of El Nino, La Nina likely to intensify

September 12, 2018

When an El Niño or its opposite, La Niña, forms in the future, it's likely to cause more intense impacts over many land regions—amplifying changes to temperature, precipitation and wildfire risk.

Recommended for you

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Dec 07, 2018
Additionally, El Nino has a 70 to 75 percent chance of developing. "We expect El Nino to be in place in late fall to early winter," said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center. "Although a weak El Nino is expected, it may still influence the winter season by bringing wetter conditions across the southern United States, and warmer, drier conditions to parts of the North."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.