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: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs