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El Niño and Climate Change: Wild Weather May Get Wilder

El Niño and Climate Change: Wild Weather May Get Wilder

This year’s El Niño phenomenon is spawning extreme weather around the planet. Now scientists are working to understand if global warming will lead to more powerful El Niños that will make droughts, floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes more intense. 

Wild weather is gripping the planet. An El Niño has been wreaking havoc around the world, causing major flooding in South America, droughts in Indonesia and southern Africa, an unprecedented hurricane season in the North Pacific last fall, and much more.

Climatologists are still calculating whether this is the biggest El Niño on record. What they do agree on is that there have now been three “super-El Niños” in the space of just over three decades — in 1982-83, 1997-98, and now 2015-16. This unusual recurrence gives weight to a forecast made by Wenju Cai of Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, two years ago that headline-grabbing “super El Niños” were in the process of upgrading from once every 20 years to once every ten years.

AFP/Getty Images
This town in Entre Rios Province, Argentina, was flooded after El Niño-related rains in December.

So what is going on? Is global warming beginning to cause more frequent and intense El Niños? And what effect might more powerful El Niño cycles have on the planet’s steadily warming climate?

El Niños are short-term aberrations of ocean currents and weather systems that start in the waters of the tropical Pacific and send shock waves around the world. They usually occur after several years of calm conditions during which prevailing tropical winds blowing across the world’s largest ocean pile warm water up in the west of the Pacific, around Indonesia.

This cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually, there is a breakout. The warm waters turn and wash back east toward the Americas.

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