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Has El Niño peaked?

Sea surface height anomaly (red for increasing height, blue for decreasing height) from January 2015 (left) to January 2016 (right) Sea surface height anomaly (red for increasing height, blue for decreasing height) from January 2015 (left) to January 2016 (right) NASA Earth Observatory
11 Feb
2016
The dramatic weather phenomenon El Niño has been growing in strength for months, but new data suggests the worst may be over

Forecasters knew it was coming, yet they were powerless to do anything about it. The Met Office recently declared 2015 as ‘the warmest year on record’, partially attributable to what Phil Jones from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit called ‘a strong El Niño-elevated global temperature’. Forecast centres announced that an El Niño had begun in the tropical Pacific back in May last year, accompanied by dire predictions that the phenomenon could exceed the infamous 1997/98 season, which reportedly caused $35billion in destruction and 23,000 deaths worldwide.

Now, there are suggestions that this growing El Niño may finally be starting to wane. The NASA Earth Observatory reports: ‘If past events help predict future ones, then we have probably reached the peak of the 2015/16 El Niño.’ Sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific – which broke records in December 2015 by reaching an average of 2.38°C ‘above the norm’ – are anticipated to begin a gradual decline, returning the ocean to normality, or possibly even a cooling La Niña state, by the middle of the year.

minisSea surface height anomaly from January 2015 (top left) to January 2016 (bottom right) (Image: NASA Earth Observatory)

The impacts of this El Niño, while far from being conclusive, have undoubtedly been dramatic. Aid agencies in East Africa have reported drought conditions around the world, with Oxfam claiming the weather phenomenon has produced ‘the worst drought in Ethiopia since the mid-1980s.’ The Ethiopian government has estimated that 10.2 million people will need humanitarian aid in the country this year, as a result of crop production dropping by 50 to 90 per cent.

Further south, El Niño has also led to drought warnings and lower crop forecasts in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, while Indonesia’s rainforest-destroying flames towards the end of 2015 were partially attributed to exceptionally intense unseasonal temperatures. On the opposite end of the weather spectrum, severe flooding in South American countries such as Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay has seen over 100,000 people forced to flee their homes, while states such as Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in the south of India saw torrential rainfall that exceeded all previous records.

A joint World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) announcement warns that even though the world ‘is better prepared for the current ongoing El Niño than any other previous event’, it still estimates that ‘the health of 60 million people may be impacted by weather and climate anomalies associated with El Niño this year, putting costly burdens on health systems.’

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