News / Science & Technology

El Niño Returns

Warm spots are beginning to appear on the surface of the tropical Pacific Ocean near South America. More warm water below the surface suggests El Niño is probably on the way.
Warm spots are beginning to appear on the surface of the tropical Pacific Ocean near South America. More warm water below the surface suggests El Niño is probably on the way.
The climate phenomenon known as El Niño looks to be on its way back, forecasters say, raising the odds of droughts in some places and floods in others.

There are early signs that this could develop into the biggest one on record.

But experts say they cannot know for sure yet, and local impacts are even harder to predict.

Global impacts

El Niño occurs every few years, when tropical waters off the Pacific coast of South America turn warmer than normal. Warm air rises off those waters and changes the path of the major wind currents that blow around the planet.

It can weaken monsoons in South and Southeast Asia.  Rainy seasons in southern Africa can turn dry. Meanwhile, east Africa and South America can get soaked.

The latest official forecasts give about two-thirds odds that El Niño will develop by the end of the year.

Under the surface

But what has really attracted attention is the huge body of warm water building up below the surface of the tropical Pacific.

Meteorologists say there is more energy stored up underwater now than at this point in 1997, just before the strongest El Niño on record developed.

The 1997-98 El Niño led to catastrophic floods in Peru, forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia and record-high global temperatures.

If those warm waters in the eastern Pacific make their way to the surface and stay there, it could mean a major El Niño event, weather havoc worldwide and possibly new high-temperature records.

No guarantee

However, “just having a lot of warm water below the surface now is not enough to guarantee that we’re going to have a strong El Niño,” notes Tony Barnston, chief forecaster Tony Barnston at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

The warm water could dissipate. It could come to the surface but not linger. Barnston says El Niño is notoriously difficult to predict at this time of year.

Plus, the atmosphere has been in a cooler cycle for the past several years, which many say does not favor a strong El Niño.

And, finally, a note of caution from Gary Eilerts,  who manages the Famine Early Warning System Network for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Eilerts was in Africa for the 1997-98 El Niño.

“We said this is going to be a big one,” he said. “This could be the mother of all impacts on food insecurity in southern Africa.”

The rains came late, but when they came, “we had almost a normal season,” Eilerts added. “And that was in the face of the largest El Niño ever recorded.”

Future predictions

Forecasters should have a better picture of what El Niño has in store by August.

What the more distant future holds in a changing climate is even less clear.

“El Niño goes back hundreds of thousands of years, so clearly, El Niño is not related to climate change,” said Mike Halpert, head of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Now, the question is, does climate change have an impact? And that’s still an open question.”

You May Like

Obama Pledges 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Burials

Country is improving at rapid response to remote, isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Religion Aside, Christmas Gains Popularity in Communist Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace Christmas precisely because of its non-religious glamor and commercial appeal More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid