September 22, 2023

It’s early, probably big, sloppy and adding even more warmth to a warming world

An early bird El Nino has officially formed, likely strong, warp weather worldwide, giving an already warming Earth an extra kick of natural heat, meteorologists announced.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an El Nino advisory on Thursday, announcing the arrival of the climatic condition. It may not be quite like the others.

It formed a month or two earlier than most El Ninos, which “gives it room to grow,” and there’s a 56% chance it’s considered strong and a 25% chance it reaches super-sized levels, said climate scientist Michelle L’Heureux, head of NOAA’s El Nino/La Nina forecasting agency.

“If this El Nino falls in the largest class of events … it will be the shortest recurrence time in the historical record,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University. Such a short gap between El Ninos leaves communities with less time to recover from damage to infrastructure, agriculture and ecosystems such as coral reefs.

Usually, an El Nino dampens hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean, bringing relief to coastal areas in states from Texas to New England, Central America and the Caribbean, tired of recent record-breaking years. But this time, forecasters don’t see that happening, due to record high Atlantic temperatures that would counter the El Nino winds that normally decapitate many storms.

Hurricanes strengthen and grow as they travel over warm ocean waters, and the tropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean are “exceptionally warm,” said Kristopher Karnauskas, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. So this year, NOAA and others are predicting a near-average Atlantic hurricane season.

In the past, a strong El Nino has led to record global warming, such as in 2016 and 1998. Scientists had said earlier this year that next year’s record heat is more likely, especially since El Ninos usually reach peak power in winter . But this El Nino started even earlier than usual.

“The onset of El Nino has implications for placing 2023 in the race for the warmest year on record when combined with climate warming background,” said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd.

An El Nino is a natural, temporary and incidental warming of part of the Pacific Ocean that shifts weather patterns around the world, often shifting the paths in the sky for storms. The world came out of an unusually long-lasting and strong La Nina — El Nino’s cooling downside — earlier this year that exacerbated drought in the western U.S. and heightened the Atlantic hurricane season.

What this means in some ways is that some of the wild weather of the past three years — such as drought in some places — will move in the opposite direction.

“If you’ve been dealing with severe drought for three years, like in South America, a tendency toward wet could be a welcome development,” L’Heureux said. “You don’t want flooding, but there are certainly parts of the world that could benefit from the onset of El Nino.”

In the coming months, during the northern summer, El Nino will be most felt in the southern hemisphere with “minimal impact” in North America, L’Heureux said.

El Nino is pushing Australia sharply toward drier and warmer conditions, with northern South America — Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela — likely to be drier and southeastern Argentina and parts of Chile likely to be wetter, she said. India and Indonesia also tend to be dry in El Ninos through August.

While traditionally El Nino means fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic, it often means more tropical cyclones in the Pacific, L’Heureux said.

El Nino hits hardest in December through February, shifting the winter storm’s track further south toward the equator. The entire southern third to half of the United States, including California, is likely to be wetter in El Nino. For years, California had been seeking El Nino rain relief after a decades-long mega-drought, but this winter’s seemingly endless atmospheric rivers made that no longer necessary, she said.

The U.S. Pacific Northwest and parts of the Ohio Valley could become dry and warm, L’Heureux said.

Some of the biggest effects are likely to be seen in a hotter and drier Indonesia and adjacent parts of Asia, L’Heureux said. Also look for parts of southern Africa that are going to run dry.

On the other hand, drought-stricken countries in northeast Africa will welcome favorable rainfall after enduring years of drought due to long-lasting La Nina events, said Azhar Ehsan, an associate research scientist at Columbia University.

Some economic studies have shown that La Nina causes more damage in the United States and worldwide than El Nino.

A 2017 study in an economics journal found that El Nino has a “growth-enhancing effect” on the economies of the United States and Europe, while costly to Australia, Chile, Indonesia, India, Japan, New Zealand and Southern Africa.

But a recent study says El Nino is far more costly globally than previously thought, putting damage in the trillions of dollars. The World Bank estimated that the 1997-1998 El Nino cost governments $45 billion.

Despite some benefits, the United States also faces dangers from El Nino. Ehsan noted that increased rainfall in California, Oregon and Washington is increasing the risk of landslides and flash floods in these areas. “While El Nino offers benefits in terms of replenishing water resources, it carries certain hazards that need to be considered and managed,” he added.


Borenstein reported from Washington, O’Malley from Philadelphia.


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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears


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