Worry again about a huge El Niño (droughts, floods, etc)! Or listen to the pros.

Summary: The fear barrages about climate change reveal so much about America today, such as the common tactics of Left and Right and their disinterest in science except when operationally useful. It also shows why the Right wins and the Left becomes marginal, as we see in this repeat of last year’s warnings of a “huge” El Niño coming with horrific effects.   {2nd of 2 posts today.}

The El Nino Monster
“The El Nino Monster” By Steve McAlister, Getty Images.

Today’s alarmism

The Left has put most of its chips on climate change as the means to reorganize America’s political and economic system. Unfortunately, during the past decade neither the climate science community (e.g., the IPCC), the weather, or the American public have cooperated, frustrating their increasingly dire forecasts. Their response shows why they have become such a marginal force in American politics: they don’t do alarmist as well as the Right.

For example let’s look at a typical piece of climate alarmism, from Slate — a launch pad for so much climate propaganda:  “Huge El Niño Becoming More Likely in 2015” by Eric Holthaus (writer about climate, undergrad BS in meteorology, bio here), 14 May 2015. Let’s look at what he says and forgets to say. He opens strongly, but doesn’t say what caused his confident but quite mistaken forecast, or what he’s learned.

Last year at this time, I was harping about the “monster” El Niño that seemed to be brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It didn’t pan out. But from the looks of the latest data, I was just one year too early.

Then he repeats the mistakes of last year’s hysterical coverage. Good science but devoid of important context.

For the first time since 1998 — the year of the strongest El Niño on record, which played havoc with the world’s weather patterns and was blamed for 23,000 deaths worldwide — ocean temperatures in all five El Niño zones have risen above 1°C warmer than normal at the same time. That’s the criteria for a moderately strong event, and the latest forecast models are unanimous that it’s going to keep strengthening for the rest of the year.

… Autumn outlooks made this time of year normally have an error of plus-or-minus 0.6°, meaning the current forecast of a 2.2°C warming of the tropical Pacific by December essentially locks in a strong event. At the low end, we can expect the biggest El Niño since the last one in 2009-2010, a moderately strong event. At the top end, this El Niño could be the strongest in recorded history.

Now, for the rest of the story…

Community Climate System Model
Community Climate System Model.

Checking in with climate science

Holthaus  gives us solid data, but little context for his warmings. Let’s see what the pros say. That’s a very short record given the long term variability of weather. Second, what is a strong El Niño (per NOAA)?  2.2°C is really strong.

Weak El Niño: Episode when the peak Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) is greater than or equal to 0.5°C and less than or equal to 0.9°C. Moderate El Niño: Episode when the peak Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) is greater than or equal to 1.0°C and less than or equal to 1.4°C. Strong El Niño: Episode when the peak Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) is greater than or equal to 1.5°C.

But the “strongest El Niño on  record” impresses less after clicking through to the record he cites: it goes back only to 1950.  How severe is a 2.2°C El Niño vs those in the past? There have been 3 similar events since 1950 (including this one, roughly one every 15 years), per NOAA.

List of El Nino events
From NOAA.

Holthaus includes the standard alarmist boilerplate about 2014 being the “warmest in history”, ignoring that neither of NASA’s two satellite temperature confirm that — and that the variation since 2000 has been so small that 2014’s temperature rise is not statistically significant (details here). As explained by Colin Morice (climate monitoring scientist at the UK Met Office):

Record or near-record years are interesting, but the ranking of individual years should be treated with some caution because the uncertainties in the data are larger than the differences between the top ranked years. We can say this year will add to the set of near-record temperatures we have seen over the last decade.

Understanding uncertainty make it science

What do the pros say about this El Niño ?

IMO journalists should report what scientists say, and activists are not worth attention. The professionals at NOAA provide clear and reliable information (at the state of the art). See their May ENSO forecast

… models – both dynamical and statistical – tend to have a harder time making successful forecasts during the spring as well. Also, El Niño events typically peak in the early winter, which is still six months away. These factors combine to make it difficult to predict the peak strength of this El Niño. It’s likely that we’ll have a clearer picture of the potential strength in the next month or so. For reference, the potential strength of the strong 1997-1998 El Niño didn’t become apparent, and wasn’t formally mentioned by CPC, until July of 1997.

Speaking of typical events, though – this is not one of them. As you can see below, it is unusual for sea surface temperatures in the Niño3.4 region to start off warm in the winter and then continue to be warm through the spring and summer. In the 60-year record, only one El Niño event, in 1986-1987, had similar behavior. The evolution and strength of this event might be a little easier to predict if it were starting at a more typical time of year.

The most substantial US temperature and rain impacts from El Niño occur during winter. Right now, it’s too early to forecast with much confidence the effect this El Niño may have on the US next winter.

Judith Curry (Prof Atmospheric Science, GA Inst Tech) adds that models work well at predicting El Niño cycles, but “they have zero skill in terms of predicting intensity (e.g. ‘huge’)”.

Also, the Spring predictability barrier is an important factor which Holthaus forgot to mention. As NOAA does in their May 15 El Niño Diagnostic Discussion on May 15 …

Given these factors, it is likely that SST anomalies will continue to increase in the coming months. However, model forecast skill tends to be lower during the Northern Hemisphere spring, which somewhat limits confidence in these forecasts. Therefore, there remains considerable uncertainty about how strong this event may become.

For a clearer explanation see an interview with Michele Rienecker, head of NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, 17 April 2015.

Once you get through the July time frame, the forecasts tend to do better, but in March-April-May, it’s really tough. The westerly wind bursts, which are important when they have a long duration and long fetch, represent a chaotic input that is difficult to predict. So it’s tough for prediction models to get things right.

For more about this see “Beyond the spring barrier?” by Peter J. Webster and Carlos D. Hoyos, Nature Geoscience, March 2010.

The May Browning Newsletter provides another insight: our understanding of El Niño comes from when the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) was in its positive (warm) cycle. Starting in 1999 it flipped into its negative (cool) phase, during which El Niño is “more changeable and impact on global weather is less predictable”.

For the most current forecast about this El Niño see NOAA’s weekly ENSO report. For another perspective on these cycles look at one of nature’s climate indicators: “”ENSO and the anchovy” by Phil Salmon at Climate Etc.


This Slate article is sad on several levels. It shows the oversupply of news and analysis, forcing companies to seek clickbait in order to survive. It shows the Left’s increasingly desperate attempt to incite fear about climate, abandoning accurate accounts of climate science (most obvious in the disappearance of the IPCC from articles about long-term climate trends). It shows our acceptance of low-grade reporting, as we prefer “news” that supports our views rather than challenging us.

We can do better.

Next in this series — Choose your facts: learn about the El Niño from journalists or activists.

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

To learn more about the overall state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these Reference Pages for other posts about climate on the FM sites: the keys to understanding climate change and my posts about climate change. For more about the Left’s program see Appeals to fear gain little support for the Left on climate change. What next?

For tips about finding reliable sources of information see Suggestions for your daily info diet. You are what you read! and Finding insights in the seas of information & misinformation.

What is an El Niño?

4 thoughts on “Worry again about a huge El Niño (droughts, floods, etc)! Or listen to the pros.

  1. Recommended is the article at Judith Curry’s site on the anchovy and its relation to El Niño: a real-time living expression of climate effects:
    ENSO and the anchovy” by Phil Salmon, 11 May 2015.

    1. Moss,

      I agree. Colin Couch described this in “Coping with Post-Democracy“, Fabian Review, Winter 2013.


      Post-democracy also makes a distinctive contribution to the character of political communication. If one looks back at the different forms of political discussion of the inter- and post-war decades one is surprised at the relative similarity of language and style in government documents, serious journalism, popular journalism, party manifestos and politicians’ public speeches. There were certainly differences of vocabulary and complexity between a serious official report designed for the policymaking community and a tabloid newspaper, but compared with today the gap was small.

      Today the language of serious documents remains more or less similar to what it was then. But tabloid newspaper discussion and party manifestos are totally different. They rarely aspire to any complexity of language or argument. Someone accustomed to such a style suddenly requiring to access a document of serious debate would be at a loss as to how to understand it. Television news presentations, hovering uneasily between the two worlds, probably thereby provide a major service in helping people make such links.

      Politicians’ election broadcasts from the early post-war years seem comical when we view them now; but they are comical because these are people talking in the normal language of serious conversation, and with the mannerisms and quaintnesses that we all possess. This seems odd because we have become accustomed to hear politicians, not speaking like normal people, but presenting glib and finely honed statements which have a character all of their own. We call these ‘sound bites’, and having dismissively labelled them think no more about what is going on.

      Like the language of tabloid newspapers and party literature, this form of communication resembles neither the ordinary speech of the person in the street, nor the language of true political discussion. It is designed to be beyond the reach of scrutiny by either of these two main modes of democratic discourse.

      This raises several questions. The mid-century population was on average less well educated than today’s. Were they able to understand the political discussions presented to them? They certainly turned out for elections more consistently than their successors; and they regularly bought newspapers which addressed them at that higher level, paying for them a higher proportion of their incomes than we do today.

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