Looming El Niño Is Upping Odds of Record Heat in 2019

December 1, 2018

The wait for El Niño continues, but scientists are already gearing up for its impacts. Chief among those is how it warms the planet as a whole. In this age of climate change, 2019 is already shaping up to be an extremely hot year, but El Niño could give it a little boost.

El Niño is characterized by warming waters in the tropical Pacific. Forecasters have been watching the region intensely for months as El Niño-like conditions have slowly developed. To official declare El Niño “on,” a region of the Pacific dubbed NINO3.4 has to have three consecutive months where waters are a half degree Celsius above normal. We’re not there yet, but we’re close, and El Niño is likely to be official by this winter.

With El Niño come a whole range of impacts, including a general uptick in the global average temperature as the tropical Pacific radiates heat into the atmosphere, altering the climate system for months even after El Niño ends. Using the official forecast of El Niño conditions over the coming three months, NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt tweeted a graph on Thursday showing where 2019 is likely to land in the pantheon of global average temperatures. It shows next year will almost certainly continue the string of years where the planet is more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial era.

Next year is also likely to be hotter than this year, and has a 33 percent chance of being the hottest year on record according to Schmidt. (That distinction which currently belongs to 2016, another El Niño year). Climate change has created a steady drumbeat of ever-rising temperatures. El Niño is only providing the bump.

That’s what makes the chances that 2019 could be record hot so striking. You see, 2016 wasn’t just any old El Niño. It was a Super El Niño among the strongest ever recorded that lasted over multiple years. In contrast, the coming El Niño is only forecast to be a weak one according to the latest update from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC). That 2019 could be record warm shows that we only need tiny nudges from natural climate shifts now to create big, new records.

In addition to cranking up the heat around the world, El Niño will also have widespread impacts on weather. CPC is already forecasting a wetter than normal winter across the southern U.S., for example, a common pattern when El Niño is around. Elsewhere, it’s likely that Australia will see hot, dry conditions and coral reefs could face warmer oceans and possibly bleaching.

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