Warning that El Niño will return in 2023, bringing with it unprecedented heat waves.

According to scientists, a phenomenon and the growing climate crisis are likely to “off the charts” raise global temperatures.

Scientists have warned that the return of the El Niño climate phenomenon later this year will bring about unprecedented heatwaves and temperatures that are “off the charts.”

It is “very likely” that global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to early forecasts of El Niño’s return later in 2023. A major El Niño was the driving force behind 2016, which was the hottest year ever recorded.

It is a component of a natural oscillation that alternates between El Niño, its cooler counterpart La Niña, and neutral conditions in the Pacific Ocean. An unusual streak of consecutive La Niña events has occurred over the past three years.

Already, it is predicted that this year will be hotter than 2022, which is ranked as the fifth or sixth hottest year on record by global datasets. However, El Niño occurs during the winter in the northern hemisphere and its heating effect lasts for months, making 2024 much more likely to break the global temperature record.

The average global temperature has risen by approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. This has already resulted in devastating effects all over the world, affecting millions of people with scorching heatwaves in the United States and Europe and devastating floods in Pakistan and Nigeria.

“It’s very likely that the next big El Niño could take us over 1.5C,” said Prof Adam Scaife, the head of long-range prediction at the UK Met Office. “The probability of having the first year at 1.5C in the next five-year period is now about 50:50.”

“We know that under climate change, the impacts of El Niño events are going to get stronger, and you have to add that to the effects of climate change itself, which is growing all the time,” he said. “You put those two things together, and we are likely to see unprecedented heatwaves during the next El Niño.”

The fluctuating impacts of the El Niño-La Niña cycle could be seen in many regions of the world, Scaife said. “Science can now tell us when these things are coming months ahead. So we really do need to use it and be more prepared, from having readiness of emergency services right down to what crops to plant.”

Prof James Hansen, at Columbia University, in New York, and colleagues said recently: “We suggest that 2024 is likely to be off the chart as the warmest year on record. It is unlikely that the current La Niña will continue a fourth year. Even a little futz of an El Niño should be sufficient for record global temperature.” Declining air pollution in China, which blocks the sun, was also increasing heating, he said.

Scientists disagreed on the degree of exacerbation caused by El Niño, which would increase extreme weather.

Prof Bill McGuire, at University College London, UK, said: “When [El Niño arrives], the extreme weather that has rampaged across our planet in 2021 and 2022 will pale into insignificance.” While Prof Tim Palmer, at the University of Oxford, said: “The correlation between extreme weather and global mean temperature is not that strong [but] the thermodynamic effects of climate change are going to make the anomalies we get from an El Niño year just that more extreme.”

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology released climate modelling results at the beginning of January. They showed that the country could go from three years of above-average rainfall to one of the hottest and driest El Niño periods on record, raising the risk of severe heatwaves, droughts, and fires. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States gave a probability of 66% that an El Niño would emerge between August and October.

It was still unknown how big the likely El Niño would be. At the University of Reading, Prof. Andy Turner stated: Moderate El Niño conditions are predicted to arrive in summer 2023, according to numerous seasonal forecast models. According to the scientists, the picture would be much clearer by June.

In many parts of the world, the El Niño-La Niña phenomenon is primarily to blame for seasonal variations in weather. The east-to-west Pacific trade winds are stronger during La Niña years, drawing deeper, cooler water from the east and pushing warm surface waters to the west. When the trade winds slow down, warm waters can spread back eastward, smothering the cooler waters and raising global temperatures during El Niño events.

Indonesia and Australia, two nations that border the west Pacific, experience hotter and drier conditions. Although China can experience flooding in the Yangtze basin following significant El Niños, “You tend to get lots of droughts, lots of wildfires,” according to Scaife.

The monsoons in India and the rains in southern Africa can both be reduced. More rain and flooding may occur in other areas, such as east Africa and the southern United States, both of which have recently experienced droughts. The Amazon, which is already nearing a dangerous tipping point, is drier than the rest of South America.

“The effects of El Niño could also be felt as far as the northern hemisphere mid-latitudes, with a likelihood of wetter conditions in Spain from summer onwards and drier conditions on the eastern seaboard of the US in the following winter and spring,” said Turner.

According to Palmer, the most pressing unanswered question is whether climate change favours more La Niña or El Niño events: “That is crucially important for countries looking at long-term adaptation, and will need much higher-resolution climate models. That can only come about with bigger computers.”

Palmer and colleagues have advocated for the establishment of a $1 billion international climate modelling centre similar to the Large Hadron Collider, which enables international particle physicists to accomplish together what no nation can accomplish on its own.


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