A fast-forming and strengthening El Niño climate pattern could peak this winter as one of the most intense ever observed, according to an experimental forecast released Tuesday.
The new prediction system suggested it could reach top-tier “super” El Niño strength, a level that in the past has unleashed deadly fires, drought, heat waves, floods and mudslides around the world.
This time, El Niño is developing alongside an unprecedented surge in global temperatures that scientists say has increased the likelihood of brutal heat waves and deadly floods of the kind seen in recent weeks.
Will that make El Niño’s typical extremes even more dramatic in the winter? “My answer would be — maybe,” said David DeWitt, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
Whether — and where — this El Niño might produce new weather extremes is difficult to pin down months in advance, scientists said. That’s because research has not clarified any link between human-caused planetary warming and El Niño, or its counterpart, La Niña.
Variation among El Niño events also makes weather impacts difficult to predict. There are signs that rising temperatures could increase El Niño’s capacity to trigger heavy rainfall in some parts of the globe, though, said Yuko Okumura, a research scientist at the University of Texas.
Climate models have for months suggested the potential for an intense El Niño that could trigger floods, heat waves and droughts.
The phenomenon is marked by a surge of warmth in surface waters along the equator in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. The warmer those waters become, and the more they couple with west-to-east flowing winds over the Pacific, the stronger the El Niño and its influence on global weather.
NOAA scientists declared the pattern’s arrival in June, by which point there were already signs of unusual warming in the Pacific and other waters around the world.
As global ocean and surface temperatures surged into record territory in the months that followed, official predictions of El Niño’s intensity have solidified. NOAA’s climate forecasters this month estimated the chance of a strong El Niño pattern by winter in the Northern Hemisphere at 71 percent. Its current strength is moderate.
A forecast that the National Center for Atmospheric Research issued Tuesday was even more bullish, using a new prediction system to prognosticate that the coming winter could bring a super El Niño, with strength rivaling the historic El Niño of 1997-1998. That winter brought extreme rainfall to California and Kenya, and intense drought to Indonesia.
“We might be facing a similar winter coming up,” said Stephen Yeager, a project scientist at the center who helped lead the forecasting. “This is one plausible future.”