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El Niño is a climate cycle considered to be one of the most important climatic phenomena on Earth due to its influence on global temperatures and precipitation.
The effects of the cycle include the warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean which can have far-reaching, global consequences that include heavy rainfall in the Americas, colder winters in the UK, and the development of tropical storms around the world. According to a recent study, “super” El Niño events could become more frequent due to the escalating climate crisis.
The term El Niño translates as ‘the boy’, which believed to have been assigned by Peruvian fishermen centuries ago. The name of the event refers to the newborn Christ – El Niño de Navidad – due to the fact the event peaks throughout December. However, the paper, recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), examined 33 El Niño events between 1901 and 2017 and came to the conclusion that a significant shift has occurred since the late-1970s.
The study determines that there has been a repositioning of El Niño’s origin point of about a thousand-miles westward. “I think the main point [of the study] is that El Niño's onset processes has been changed since the 1970s,” said Bin Wang, lead author of the paper and atmospheric scientist at the University of Hawaii.
The westward progression of the cycle is worthy of attention as it marks the formation and peaking of El Niño in an area of the Pacific that is naturally warmer. Thus, increasing the prospect of a more powerful cycle with knock-on effect of extreme weather conditions. What this means is that there is a likelihood in the increase of “super El Niño” events that would cause lasting extreme climate events which could severely impact Earth’s ecosystems as well as human societies.
Increased occurrence of super El Niño cycles can cause temperatures around the world to spike and break global temperature records which happened 1982, 1997 and 2015. Analysis of each of these years also illuminates the point that El Niño’s cycle originated with a westward shift. Furthermore, these years also report increases in extreme weather events including fierce storms and flooding – it was reported that the 1982-83 event caused over 10 billion USD worth of damage worldwide.
As well as increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events that can cause billions of dollars-worth of damage and the loss-of-life, frequent El Niño cycles can also contribute to the prolonged warming of oceans. Thereby, leading to the melting of glaciers, death of coral reefs, and heavily impacting other important ecosystems.
Mark Cane of Columbia University, who is a pioneer in El Niño forecasting and co-author of the paper, stated that computer models have failed to, “accurately simulate changes in the tropical Pacific Ocean,” over the past few decades. Therefore, if the West Pacific warms at a faster rate than the East Pacific, it can lead to an increase in super El Niño events centered toward the international date line.
Scientists have long sought the answer to how climate change will affect El Niño events and what the resulting scale and consequences would be.
Simulations with global climate models suggest that if the observed background changes continue under future anthropogenic forcing, more frequent extreme El Niño events will induce profound socioeconomic consequence.
Using their data and findings, Wang’s team of international researchers and scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how these events may continue to increase and evolve. Thus, enabling their research to support efforts for adaptation as well as mitigating for environmental, societal, and economic consequences.