Prepare for a clickbait avalanche about the super El Niño!

Summary:  The current bout of hysteria about the El Niño demonstrates an under-reported but serious problem. As the world grows more complex and evolves faster we have little interest in reliable sources to help us understand and manage events ( like the NOAA advice shown below). Clickbait by a desperate news media (struggling with overcapacity) better appeals to our desire for entertainment and tribal truths. We must do better, or the 1% will run things for us.

“Climate change journalism is mostly crap if you didn’t notice because it’s not done by journalists. Mostly advocacy & self promotion.”
Climate scientist Ryan Maue (@RyanMaue), 14 July 2015.

Ignorance is a choice

Contents

  1. The internet can make us stupid.
  2. There are reliable sources, if only we’d listen.
  3. Current model forecasts from NOAA.
  4. Should we care about new weather records?
  5. What’s a strong El Niño?
  6. For More Information.
  7. For a better understanding of extreme weather…
  8. Tell us who you rely on for information…

(1)  The internet can make us stupid

Weather porn provides clickbait for the media’s struggle for survival with extreme overcapacity with its endless stream of “records” and “extremes” from our short weather records, even shorter memories, and natural climate cycles (anthropogenic factors are just the cherry on top of the media’s cake). Activists then select useful bits and amplify them, which journalists repeat. We see this feedback at work for a second year of hysteria about an El Niño cycle, reported as if it were Godzilla arising from the ocean depths — not a natural phenomenon.

That’s not an exaggeration, as seen from the consistently over-the-top lunacy at Robert Scribbler’s blog: “Monster El Nino Emerging From the Depths — Sea Surface Temperatures Hit Strong Event Threshold” by Robert Marston Fanney (fantasy writer; bio here). With no visible background in climate science, last year he ignited the Left’s hysteria about a monster super El Nino (which didn’t happen).

(2)  There are reliable sources, if only we’d listen

“Democracy can’t continue to prosper if we can’t immediately and effectively reject frank BS. Whose job is that? Journalists say ‘not us’.”
— Climate scientist Michael Tobis (@mtobis), 14 July 2015.

Lost in all the fantasy and exaggeration is the commentary from NOAA — reliable, but not clickbait, so ignored.  Such as this article by NOAA meteorologist Tom Di Liberto debunking some popular misconceptions: “No, you can’t blame it all on El Niño” — It’s well worth reading in full, giving an explanation of El Niño’s effects. Opening…

After El Niño conditions were declared in March and Climate Prediction Center’s latest forecast predicted El Niño’s continued strengthening during the upcoming summer and fall, I think it is safe to say we are well within the time period where everything will be blamed on El Niño.

It rained on your wedding day? El Niño. Had an outdoor picnic ruined by a late afternoon thunderstorm? El Niño. Was it hot …during the summer? El Niño.

Usually these are exaggerations. Mike Halpert and Tony Barnston in past posts have shown what type of U.S. and global impacts are associated with an El Niño for the late fall and winter and for the summer, respectively. But aside from its effect on seasonal hurricane activity, El Niño impacts over the US during the summer are minimal at best.

Granted, El Niño does have substantial impact on rainfall patterns elsewhere globally during June through August. However, it is hard to overcome the suspicion that El Niño is pulling all the atmospheric strings and creating an ever-increasing amount of extreme weather events compared to a year without an event.

So allow me to ask some simple questions. Is El Niño causing every weather event we see? Are there a greater number of extreme precipitation events during El Niño years than a normal year? …

(b)  Here is more good advice, from NOAA meteorologist Michelle L’Heureux:  “Keep calm and stop obsessing over weekly changes in ENSO” …

We are now nearing 1.5°C in the Niño-3.4 index for a 7-day or weekly average. … the level of warmth in sea surface temperatures this time of year harkens back to 1997-98 El Niño, which ended up becoming a record strength event.

Are these weekly numbers impressive? Yes. But when a weekly value hits 1.5°C is El Niño instantly considered strong? I’d argue no. While a short-term (daily or weekly) number might be striking, it shouldn’t be used as an indicator of El Niño strength unless it is carefully placed into a larger context. Here are some reasons to be careful about gauging El Niño strength on a sub-monthly basis:

  1. Weekly conditions in the tropical Pacific aren’t related to global impacts. …
  2. Weekly averages bounce around because… you know, weather. …
  3. The squishiness of rankings. Remember, El Niño is based on both the ocean and atmosphere. There are many different data sets and methods to compare and measure strength. …
  4. For a snapshot in time, there might be a certain atmospheric or oceanic feature similar to the 1997-98 strong El Niño, but there are other features that are not….
  5. Current observed conditions are not the same as a forecast for the future. …

But why does strength even matter? As you can probably figure out by now, I’m a nerd who enjoys coding and playing around with numbers, and there are a nearly infinite number of ways to splice and dice data to estimate strength. But I always try to step back and establish my goal. A label or ranking is only as useful as its purpose.

At NOAA CPC and the IRI, we mainly use ENSO status and strength to say something about the coming seasonal impacts on temperature, precipitation, and tropical storm activity. As a rule-of-thumb, the stronger the El Niño event, the more reliable or confident we will be in the impacts, which is why Tom recently pointed out El Niño is a climate forecaster’s best friend.

We often emphasize 3-month, or seasonal, averages to assess the strength of El Niño. We also focus on the Northern Hemisphere late fall, winter, and early spring seasons because that is when impacts are the greatest over North America. So, those are the seasons and impacts that will be most important for ranking the current El Niño and deciding whether this event will be on par with the 1997-98 El Niño.

(c)  More good advice — this from Dan Satterfield at the American Geophysical Union’s website: “Why Using El Nino to Forecast the Winter is Risky“, 23 July 2015. Especially note this:

“If you just look at really strong El Nino’s then we really only have a sample size of two to base a forecast on, 1982-83 and 1997-98. A sample size of two is just not enough to base a forecast on, and just look at the image above, this one is already different from 1997!”

That has already proven to be good advice: “Monsoon Defies El Nino Forecasts Answering Prayers of Indian Farmers“, Bloomberg, 28 July 2015.

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

(3)  The current forecasts from NOAA (as of 13 July 2015)

The 1997-98 “super” El Niño peaked at 2.4°C. What are the forecasts for this one? Strong but not a record.  NOAA’s official forecast, as of 18 June 2015 says…

MOST DYNAMICAL MODELS FOR SSTS CONTINUE TO SUGGEST NINO 3.4 ANOMALIES WILL INCREASE AND PEAK THE LATE FALL. THE PDF CORRECTED NINO 3.4 SST ANOMALY FROM THE CFSV2 PEAKS NEAR +1.8 C IN Oct-Dec 2015.

THIS AGREES WELL WITH THE CONSENSUS OF MODEL FORECASTS FOR NINO 3.4 SSTS RUN AT OTHER CENTERS, THAT ALSO SUGGEST PEAK ANOMALIES OF AROUND +2.0 C LATE IN THE YEAR.

STATISTICAL FORECASTS OF NINO 3.4 ANOMALIES ARE WEAKER, BUT THE MAJORITY PREDICT ANOMALIES EXCEEDING +1.0 C EXTENDING THROUGH THE FALL. THE CPC CONSOLIDATION FORECAST FOR NINO 3.4 SSTS SHOWS THE VALUE INCREASING TO AROUND +1.8 C BY Nov-Jan 2015-2016, THEN DECREASING, BUT REMAINING ABOVE +1.0 C THROUGH Jan-Mar 2016.

A CONSENSUS OF EXPERTS AT CPC AND IRI HAVE ISSUED PROBABILITIES EXCEEDING 80% FOR EL NINO CONDITIONS TO CONTINUE INTO Jan-Mar 2016.

For more recent forecasts we turn to NOAA’s weekly ENSO report, which shows two sets of models. The first is by NOAA and the International Research Institute (IRI): “The dynamical model average and NOAA Consensus Forecast suggest that Niño 3.4 will exceed +1.5C (a “strong” El Niño) later in the year.” Note the wide range of forecasts for the peak, from almost neutral to slightly above the 1997-1998 peak of 2.4°C (a tiny new record).

NOAA ENSO forecast, 13 July 2015

The second is NOAA’s Coupled Forecast System model version 2 (CFSv2) has a narrower spread peaking slightly under the 1997-98 peak (strong but no record).

The CFS.v2 ensemble mean predicts El Niño through Feb-Apr 2016

NOAA ENSO Forecast

(4)  Should we care about new weather records?

Magnitudes matter more than records, as explained by climate scientist Roy Spencer (U AL-Hunsville)…

We could have a record warm year, every year, but what really matters is just how much that warming is. If there was no natural variability, and we had perfect measurements, each successive year could be 0.01 C warmer than the prior year and thus be a new, record warm year…but would we really care?

It’s the long-term difference between (1) the climate models used to promote energy policy changes and (2) the observations, which should drive the global warming debate, not qualitative “record warmest year” statements.

(5)  What’s a strong El Niño?

NOAA defines 3 levels of El Niños strength (source: NOAA). There have been 8 strong El Niño cycles since 1951 (the accurate data record; 63 years being a brief time), including the 1997-98 El Niño peaking at 2.4°C (source: NWS weekly report).

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.

Clear vision

(6)  For More Information

Amateurs, especially alarmist amateurs, speak in certainties. Climate scientists speak of probabilities. For an explanation see “Why do ENSO forecasts use probabilities?“, Anthony Barnston, NOAA, 19 June 2014.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these other posts about El Nino…, especially Worry again about a huge El Niño (droughts, floods, etc)! Or listen to the pros — and Choose your facts: learn about the El Niño from journalists or activists.

(7)  For a better understanding of extreme weather…

To learn more about the 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).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change

(8) Tell us who you rely on for information!

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4 thoughts on “Prepare for a clickbait avalanche about the super El Niño!

  • Perusing a 1979 tome The Book of Great Natural Disasters yesterday, I came upon a passage in the chapter on droughts:

    Scientists think that global cooling may be responsible for the decreased frequency of droughts since the 1930s.

    LOL!

    Like

    • Thomas,

      Reading popular science books tells you what the public thought at that date, not what scientists believed. I have written several posts showing the range of opinion in the 1970s about future climate. It depended largely on forecasts for emissions of particles vs co2. We reduced the former, hence warming. China and the other emerging nations have blasted massive amounts of particles in the air, which might (might!) explain the pause in warming (there are many other explanations) — and (more certain) the accelerated melting of the arctic.

      Like

  • Top 5 Differences between the 1997 and 2015 El Niños” at WeatherBELL, 18 August 2015.

    Some major differences in the global sea surface temperature patterns:

    1. There is a lot more warm water this year off the West Coast of the U.S.
    2. The water of the West Coast of South America is not as warm as 1997.
    3. The Atlantic Ocean is completely opposite, thanks to the flip in the AMO (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation) from positive to negative.
    4. The Indian Ocean was cool in 1997 but is warmer than normal this year.
    5. The warm pool in the Gulf of Alaska is warmer.

    In the longer term, sea surface temperatures steer the overall jet stream. These differences will ensure that the overall fall and winter weather patterns will be unique.

    These differences are important. As climate scientist Angela Fritz says “some studies have shown that it only takes slight variations in strength and extent to change the way it affects our weather.”

    Like

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