The evidence of climate change becomes difficult to ignore when recent data reveals that ocean water temperatures have reached an unprecedented high. This record-breaking milestone was reached in March, coinciding with the expected departure of the current La Niña phase and the impending arrival of an El Niño phase.
The concerning aspect of this data is that the record high sea surface temperatures occurred during a La Niña phase, which typically leads to lower readings. The Climate Prediction Center (CPC), a division of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently declared the end of the La Niña phase.
Additionally, the CPC predicts neutral conditions for the spring and early summer, with the El Niño phase likely to establish itself by late summer or early fall.
The advent of the El Niño pattern brings with it a range of adverse climate impacts, including more powerful typhoons, extreme heatwaves, increased wildfire risks, and threats to fragile coral reefs. This is because the transition to an El Niño phase usually entails higher temperatures worldwide, which has implications for global weather patterns.
Increased Precipitation for the West Coast
Earlier in 2023, California experienced substantial rainfall and snowfall, which brought some relief to the ongoing drought in the state. However, forecasters warn that as the transition to an El Niño pattern commences, the precipitation could intensify even further.
The Sierra Nevada mountains witnessed historically high levels of snowpack, resulting in widespread flooding as rising temperatures caused rapid snowmelt. With the onset of El Niño, California is likely to experience even more rainfall, heightening the risks of landslides, mudslides, flooding, and coastal erosion.
This forecast aligns with the historical trend of La Niña causing droughts and El Niño eradicating them. Unfortunately, it is challenging to predict which areas will be affected by drought and which ones will receive above-average levels of moisture during these transitions.
For instance, while California benefited from a series of storms last winter, the Desert Southwest continues to grapple with drought conditions. Plummeting water levels in the Colorado River have triggered a severe water crisis in this region. The arrival of El Niño could provide significant relief for the Southwest, akin to what California experienced this winter.
Extreme Heat and Drought in Other Regions
While California and the Western regions may face considerable precipitation, other parts of the world could experience the opposite scenario. El Niño could exacerbate droughts, intense heatwaves, and wildfire risks in certain communities. India, South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands are particularly vulnerable to these heatwaves, droughts, and wildfire dangers.
In Australia, local meteorologists express concern that recent flooding events will heighten the risk of wildfires. The flooding has fostered dense vegetation growth, which provides ample fuel for fires to spread.
In India, the impacts of El Niño are likely to result in a shorter and weaker monsoon season. The country heavily relies on monsoon rainfall to replenish its aquifers. If the monsoon moisture fails to materialize, farmers could face a challenging growing season. Additionally, the onset of El Niño in India could lead to soaring temperatures, exacerbating the water availability problem.
Escalating Global Warming
Another consequence of El Niño is the potential for global warming to reach unprecedented levels. Experts predict that the planet may surpass a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperature compared to pre-industrial levels in the mid-1800s.
This milestone is concerning because it exceeds the target set by the Paris Climate Agreement, which aimed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Crossing this threshold poses the risk of irreversible droughts, severe flooding, wildfires, and other catastrophic impacts. Scientists already anticipate that 2024 will likely be the hottest year ever recorded on Earth.
The previous record was set in 2016, following a strong El Niño pattern.
Despite the presence of La Niña in recent years, Europe experienced its hottest summer ever in 2022. India and Pakistan also faced extreme heat, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Intensified Cyclones and Flooding
While the Atlantic hurricane season typically sees reduced activity during an El Niño phase, warmer sea surface temperatures in the Pacific can fuel a more robust cyclone season in that region.
The higher temperatures increase the likelihood of tropical events developing farther west and maintaining their intensity for longer durations. The Hawaiian islands are the only part of the United States likely to be affected by cyclones originating from the Pacific Ocean.
This warming trend is already evident off the coast of Peru in South America, where the threat of cyclones and flooding is compounded.