Reuters

Climate change will mean more frequent and more powerful El Niños, say researchers.

In the late 1990s, a particularly strong El Niño oscillation scourged the world with droughts, floods, and disruptions to the food supply. Carrying the energy equivalent of a million Hiroshima bombs, the titanic climate event was ultimately responsible for 23,000 deaths and at least $35 billion in damages.

In a scenario of unimpeded climate change, this kind of large-scale mayhem could become routine, according to distressing new research. Whereas the planet now receives an especially potent El Niño every 20 years – the term describing unusually warm waters in the equatorial Pacific – it could soon start facing them every decade, say scientists from NOAA and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. That would mean significant social and economic disruptions to countries in the climate phenomenon's path, such as Australia, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Peru.

People have wondered for decades how global warming will affect El Niño; this study in Nature Climate Change provides the "first comprehensive examination of the issue to produce robust and convincing results," says one of its coauthors. It's not a pretty picture, as the resulting changes in the global rainfall cycle will likely have deadly repercussions over vast distances. Say the scientists:

"During an extreme El Niño event countries in the western Pacific, such as Australia and Indonesia, experienced devastating droughts and wild fires, while catastrophic floods occurred in the eastern equatorial region of Ecuador and northern Peru," said lead author, CSIRO’s Dr Wenju Cai

In Australia, the drought and dry conditions induced by the 1982-83 extreme El Niño preconditioned the Ash Wednesday Bushfire in southeast Australia, leading to 75 fatalities....

"For Australia, this could mean summer heat waves, like that recently experienced in the south-east of the country, could get an additional boost if they coincide with extreme El Ninos," said co-author, Professor Matthew England from CoECSS.

The researchers reached this grim conclusion after using 20 climate models to simulate how rainfall will change over the next 100 years. Here's a visual representation of where they expect the uptick in extreme weather to develop (it's the trans-Pacific red zone at bottom): 

Just as a reminder, the latest heat wave to strike this part of the world had professional tennis players either vomiting on-court or hallucinating about a cartoon dog.

Top image: Spanish tennis player David Ferrer suffers in 108-degree heat during the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 15. (Bobby Yip / Reuters)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Developer James Rouse visiting Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
    Life

    What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

    The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.

  2. Equity

    What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

    Livability indexes can obscure the experiences of non-white people. CityLab analyzed the outcomes just for black women, for a different kind of ranking.

  3. photo: San Diego's Trolley
    Transportation

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

  4. Design

    Why Amsterdam’s Canal Houses Have Endured for 300 Years

    A different kind of wealth distribution in 17th-century Amsterdam paved the way for its quintessential home design.

  5. photo: NYC subway
    Transportation

    Behind the Gains in U.S. Public Transit Ridership

    Public transportation systems in the United States gained passengers over the second and third quarters of 2019. But the boost came from two large cities.

×