Huge El Niño Probable. But What Does It Mean for Us?

Apr 09 at 12pm

By Peter Lawrence Kane

The rain is over for now. It’s possible the Bay Area won’t get any significant precipitation for the rest of the season, meaning this will be yet another span of time when our region will get about half the rain it should, and two-thirds of California is still in an extreme drought.

However, in the past few months, climate models have pointed to the return of one of the globe’s weirdest and most wide-reaching phenomena: El Niño. The odds are now pretty good that the winter of 2014-15 is going to be devastating in a lot of places, and bring much-needed rain to California, which is also probably going to see an insane wildfire season between now and then. This might be the hottest year ever recorded.

The technical definition of the “El Niño-Southern Oscillation” is a persistent warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean south of Hawaii for five seasons in a row (although it’s actually way more complicated, and not entirely understood), which afflicts the entire Pacific Rim and even beyond with extreme weather. Niño means “boy,” but when capitalized it refers to the “Christ Child,” because the ocean usually starts warming around Christmas, when it should otherwise be cooling off. (There is also La Niña, which acts the opposite way, keeping rain away from the Golden State but also upping the number of Atlantic hurricanes, as in 2008.) The previous major El Niños were in 1982-83 and 1997-98 – and the ocean is already as warm as it was then. El Niños have always been erratic and have been happening for centuries before humans started pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but because of us they’re predicted to intensify.

And just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. That last El Niño caused $35 billion in damage worldwide, and 23,000 people died – from wildfires in drought-stricken Indonesia and Australia to catastrophic flooding and mudslides in Ecuador and Peru, as well as here. This puts an affluent yet parched state like California in the unfortunate position of cheering on collateral damage in impoverished places because we need the rain.

But it’s going to happen eventually, and without any input from us. Get ready to hear about El Niño, all the time, for the next year.

Image via Thinkstock

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