WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. is bracing for a potentially tumultuous winter as the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts an intensifying El Niño phenomenon, coupled with record ocean temperatures due to global warming. This combination threatens to bring extreme weather across the country.
According to World Economic Forum, the current El Niño pattern—characterized by a significant rise in sea surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific—has been particularly strong and is expected to strengthen further during the winter months. This El Niño event follows on the heels of a La Niña phase that brought cooler temperatures and is now giving way to its warmer counterpart.
El Niño, a climate pattern that occurs as sea temperatures rise above long-term averages, has historically impacted global weather, leading to warmer temperatures worldwide. The UK Met Office notes that the name El Niño, Spanish for “the little boy,” dates back to Peruvian fishermen who originally identified the pattern around Christmas season.
While El Niño predominantly affects the equatorial eastern Pacific, its repercussions are global, raising temperatures across the world. Its sibling phase, La Niña, conversely leads to cooler sea surface temperatures, often resulting in drier and cooler global weather conditions.
As El Niño emerges amidst already high global temperatures, concerns are rising. The UN reported July 2023 as the hottest month in 120,000 years due to the combined effects of El Niño and global climate change, followed by record-breaking warmth in August and September.
NOAA projects that the U.S. will likely experience warmer-than-average temperatures across large areas, extending from the Pacific west to the northern Atlantic coast. Interactions with jet streams, according to Axios, could bring more storms through California into the southern states, while cold air is expected to affect the northern U.S., potentially repeating severe snowstorms witnessed in previous years.
Globally, El Niño’s reach extends beyond the Americas. Regions from the west coast of the Americas to parts of Asia and the Pacific are expected to feel the earliest effects. For instance, Indonesia and Australia may face hotter, drier conditions with increased wildfire risk, while different patterns of rainfall across India, South Africa, and East Africa could lead to droughts or flooding. Europe is anticipated to see a divide with colder, drier winters in the north and wetter conditions in the south.
The World Meteorological Organization has warned of El Niño’s potential to endanger lives and jeopardize food security in various regions, as highlighted by The Guardian.
As for the Pacific Ocean, there is a heightened risk of hurricanes, raising the likelihood of tropical cyclones making landfall in places like Hawaii.
The interplay between El Niño and climate change is an active area of research. The Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London points out that extreme sea surface temperature events in the Eastern Pacific have risen since 1960, and El Niño episodes are expected to become more frequent over the next century.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 identifies climate-related risks as top concerns, emphasizing the urgency of mitigating and adapting to climate change as the preeminent challenge of the coming decade.