Floods in South America and England, spring temperatures in Europe, tornadoes in the US – of all these weather phenomena, only the ones in the southern hemisphere can be linked to El Niño.
Parts of England are flooded after torrential rainfall, and also in southern America more than 150.000 people had to leave their homes after floods. In the US, a tornado claims 43 lives, and in Ethiopia people are starving as a result of a draught.
At the same time, we are expecting unusually mild temperatures at the North Pole – just above the freezing point. This is about 40 degrees warmer than usual at this time of year and – at least during the day – almost as warm as southern California in the middle of the night. There, temperatures dropped to as low as 4 degrees Celsius (the low 50s Fahrenheit) just recently.
Looks like the weather has gone nuts? Be that as it may, when looking for a scapegoat, the usual suspect El Niño may be the wrong choice.
What is El Niño?
El Niño, Spanish for “the boy,” is a name that Peruvian fishermen gave a weather phenomenon that returns every couple years. The name is a reference to the birth of Jesus, because El Niño always comes around Christmas time and lasts for about one year.
The last time it came was in the winter of 2009/2010. In such an El Niño year, the general weather pattern changes. Cold and warm currents in the Pacific – especially along the South American Coast – can change, disappear or reverse themselves. The consequences can be felt in other parts of the globe.
El Niño can trigger natural disasters, such as heavy rainfall in some areas and droughts in others. Jerome Lecou, climate expert of the French weather service Meteo France estimates that this year could be the strongest El Niño for about the last hundred years.
El Niño is to blame for conditions in South America, Indonesia and Australia
Experts agree: The floods in Argentina and Paraguay can clearly be linked to El Niño. “We see a definite connection between the current floods in South America and El Niño,” Andreas Friedrich from the German Weather Service DWD told Deutsche Welle. “We know that during El Niño periods the rainfall is much heavier than normal,” he adds.
And also forest fires, smog and drought in Indonesia and Australia can be safely blamed on the “little child.” And it also plays a role in the current drought in Ethiopia: When rain falls in one place, it is lacking in another, the meteorologist explains. And El Niño is contributing to yet another effect: 2015 will be registered as the warmest year since the beginning of climate records. But that’s about it when it comes to the blame that can be directly attributed to El Niño, Friedrich says.
Not guilty for the weather in the U.S. Europe and at the North Pole
What about the other parts of the world? Often, the extreme weather in the southern US is being mentioned in one breath with El Niño. But that is not justified, meteorologist Friedrich says: “The tornadoes in the US, the floods in England and the mild temperatures in parts of Central Europe have no substantial link to El Niño. Those are aberrations from the large scale weather pattern in the northern hemisphere. And those lead to such individual extreme weather events.”
The reason for that is a change in the route of the jet stream – corridors of strong winds that travel around the globe roughly at the cruising altitude of long distance airplanes – 10.000 meters or 30.000 feet.
“Those jet streams have lots of bumps,” Friedrich puts it figuratively. As a consequence, warmer air from the Canaries is travelling all the way north to the Arctic Ocean, where they rarely occur. This led to a situation in which areas of low pressure repeatedly hit the same region in western England and released huge amounts of water there.
“This is part of the chaotic system of the atmosphere. We don’t know why such large scale weather patterns keep repeating themselves. We have no explanation, but that does not mean we can blame it on El Niño,” Friedrich says.
And his French colleague and member of the International Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) Jean Jouzel would not blame climate change alone for the weather events, either. Those could still be a part of naturally occurring cycles.
Andreas Friedrich adds: “It is very simple to put everything together in one big pot. But what we experience here in Germany and to the north of us has nothing to do with El Niño. And it is not a climate catastrophe either, but an abnormality in large scale weather. Those are always chaotic and cannot be predicted. Otherwise, we would already know in the summer how the weather would be for Christmas.”