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What will happen to global warming when we get the next big El Niño?

Dust Cloud in Australia in 1983

A massive reddish-brown cloud advances on Melbourne, Australia, on 8 February 1983. The dust storm was a consequence of devastating droughts induced by the extreme El Niño of 1982-83. The frequency of extreme El Niño events is predicted to double in the future as the Earth’s climate warms. Photograph: Trevor Farrar/Australia Bureau of Meteorology


Powered by article titled “What will happen to global warming when we get the next big El Niño?” was written by Graham Readfearn, for on Thursday 23rd January 2014 05.05 UTC

I’d like to declare a new season.

The back end of January is now the traditional time when we find out that the year we just had was one of the hottest on record.

I’ve no idea what we’d call this season, but it’s upon us once again and it’s becoming repetitive. It’s been going on for a decade or more.

It’s like Groundhog Day, but without the jokes and cuddly marmots.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climate Data Center says 2013 was the fourth warmest year on a record going back to 1890.

NASA says it was the seventh. For Australia, 2013 was our hottest ever.

Also at this time of year, climate science denialists feverishly yell at anyone within range of a newspaper opinion column or conservative media pundit that global warming stopped in 1998.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) averages the three main data sets of global temperature – the UK’s Met Office, NASA‘s and one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center.

This WMO ranking actually has 1998 as the third hottest year on record, behind 2005 in second place. The hottest year was 2010, when temperatures were – on average – 0.56C above the long-term average of 14C.

NOAA’s annual analysis of the global climate adds ocean temperatures and land temperatures together to make 2013 the fourth warmest on record.

In 134 years of records, NOAA says nine of the 10 warmest years have all happened since the turn of the century – with 1998 the exception.  There has not been a single year in the last 37 that’s been cooler than the long-term average.

Yet still climate science denialists claim global warming has paused or stopped.

Professor John Quiggin, an economist at the University of Queensland and member of the Climate Change Authority (which the Australian Government is in the process of closing down) has little patience for the warming deniers.

“Only someone completely ignorant of time series statistics could make such a claim,” he says.

One thing that climate science denialists rarely point out is a key reason why 1998 was so warm (but not the warmest anymore) was that it coincided with a particularly strong El Niño.

We have not had a strong one of those since 1998, but what will happen when we do?

An El What-o?

There is a climate phenomenon known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that can impact on weather events across the planet.

Meteorologists and climatologists describe ENSO as being in three states – neutral, negative (El Niño) or positive (La Niña).

In simple terms, when ocean temperatures in the central and eastern parts of the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean are unusually high, that’s an El Niño.

It increases the chances of drought in eastern Australia and it tends to deliver hotter years globally.

This graph from NASA shows the correlation between global temperatures and La Niña years (blue bars) and El Niño years (red bars) with neutral years in gray. The lines show the trends in temperature for each.

Temperature Anomaly

Graph showing how temperatures continued to rise even when El Niño and La Niña events skew temperatures warmer or colder in any one year. Image: NASA


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