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The El Niño Effect: Here's Why it is Going to be Unnaturally Hot from September to November

What is an El Niño event, what does it mean for it to become neutral and why is the World Meteorological Organisation predicting an inordinately warm next three months for the globe? Here's a News18 explainer.

Aniruddha Ghosal | News18.com@aniruddhg1

Updated:September 6, 2019, 9:58 AM IST
The El Niño Effect: Here's Why it is Going to be Unnaturally Hot from September to November
Representative Image.

The outcome of an El Niño is never quite the same: from being linked to a record-breaking, continent-spanning drought that killed an estimated 50 million people in the 19th century, to entire villages sliding down mountainsides in central America in 2017.

After the monsoon in India got off to a slow start, with a 45 per cent deficit rainfall in India until June, the waning of the El Niño is one of the factors leading to an increased spurt in rainfall. The monsoon has strengthened over the western coast and Central India and extremely heavy rainfall is likely to take place in Gujarat over the next two days and tomorrow over Goa, Maharashtra, northern coastal Andhra Pradesh and southern Odisha.

But what is an El Niño event, what does it mean for it to become neutral and why is the World Meteorological Organisation - a specialized agency of the United Nations - predicting an inordinately warm next three months for the globe?

News18 explains.

What is an El Niño?

An El Niño event is effectively a single half of the natural occurring weather cycle called the 'El Niño -Southern Oscillation' (ENSO). It is a variation in the winds and temperatures of the ocean surface over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. This, in turn, has a direct impact on the climate of the tropics and the subtropics. The El Niño is the warm phase, while the cooling phase is known as La Niña. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) points out that the two events are caused by, and contribute to, naturally occurring climate variability. They disrupt the normal patterns of precipitation in the tropics and have widespread impacts on the global weather.

An ENSO-neutral period, on the other hand, is when neither the El Niño, or La Niña is present. These coincide with the transition between the two event, and ocean temperatures, rainfall patterns and atmospheric winds over the equatorial Pacific ocean are nearer to the long-term average.

Why should we care?

The WMO points out that "outcomes of each El Niño event are never exactly the same" and depend on its intensity and the time of the year it develops, along with interaction with other climate patterns. In the summer months of the northern hemisphere, the Indian monsoon rainfall generally tends to be less than normal. The monsoon in India was off to a shaky start, with the Met department noting that until the last week of June, it had been 45 percent below the average.

In the past, El Niño events have been linked to some of the most devastating disasters in human history. The concurrent, multi-year droughts in Asia, Brazil and Africa, referred to as the great drought between 1876 and 1878, have been linked to a record-breaking El Niño event between 1877-78. It lead to "widespread crop failures, catalyzing the so-called Global Famine, which had fatalities exceeding 50 million people", with the "monsoon Asia region being the hardest hit, experiencing the single most intense and the second most expansive drought in the last 800 years", said a 2018 study by Deepti Singh, of the School of the Environment, Washington State University.

So if the El Niño has waned now, why is it still going to stay warm?

The short-answer: human-induced climate change.

Earlier this week, the WMO said that "average sea surface and land temperatures across large parts of the world are forecast to be above normal in September-November" despite the absence of a full-blown El Niño event. But the WMO noted that even the "so-called ENSO neutral months are warmer than in the past as air and sea surface temperatures and ocean heat have increased due to climate change."

With more than 90 percent of the energy trapped by greenhouse gases landing up in the ocean, the ocean heat content reached record highs in 2018. And, July 2019 has been the hottest month on record, with heat waves and other extreme weather being recorded across the world. Maxx Dilley, Director of WMO Climate Adaptation and Prediction Branch said, “The signal from human-induced climate change has now become more powerful than that from a major natural force of nature.” As a result, temperatures of the sea surface are most likely to be above-average for the rest of 2019 and in the early months of 2002, in spite of remaining within ENSO-neutral levels.

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