What if the “Godzilla” El Niño is a dud?

Summary:  After months of hype about this “Godzilla” El Niño, the peak approaches. The major climate models warn that it might be just another strong cycle (like 1997-98), as NOAA & the WMO have predicted — not the precedent-breaking monstrous event predicted in the news headlines. As a thought experiment, consider how might this — another blown forecast — affect the public’s confidence in climate scientists. This is a follow-up to July’s post Prepare for a clickbait avalanche about the super El Niño! First of two posts today.

“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. Experts forecasts about this El Niño.
  2. What if there is no “Godzilla” El Niño?
  3. Good advice from NOAA & others.
  4. Should we care about weather records?
  5. What’s a strong El Niño?
  6. For More Information.
  7. To better understand extreme weather…

(1)  Experts’ forecasts about this El Niño

“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño.”
— Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the LAT.

NOAA’s current forecast, as of October 15 expects a strong El Niño. There have been 8 strong El Niño cycles in the 64 years since 1951, including the 1997-98 “super” El Niño.

“THE ONGOING EL NINO EVENT IS EXPECTED TO PEAK IN STRENGTH IN LATE AUTUMN OR EARLY WINTER WITH SEASONAL AVERAGE SEA SURFACE TEMPERATURE (SST) ANOMALIES IN THE NINO 3.4 REGION NEAR OR EXCEEDING +2.0 DEGREES CELSIUS, DIMINISHING IN MAGNITUDE THROUGH THE LATE WINTER AND SPRING.”

The May forecast of this cycle by NOAA’s CFSv2 models had its highest peak, predicting aprox 3.2°C for November 2015 — which would have been exciting if it occurred. Since then its forecasts have fallen. The latest run, as of October 25, predicts a peak of aprox 2.6°C in  November (it’s now 2.5°C). That would be a record in the brief 64-year long record (slightly above 1982 and 1997), but not a “Godzilla” event. Unless Godzilla visits every decade or so.

CFSv2 as of May 2015

CFSv2 as of October 2015

NOAA and the International Research Institute (IRI) provides a plume showing a wider range of models, each type with their own average forecast. Unlike the CFSv2 model, the wider forecast averages continue to rise. They were below the CFSv2 forecast, but have now risen to equal it — all at aprox the peak level of 1997-98.

The October forecast of the dynamic models predicts peaks at 2.5°C during the Oct-Nov-Dec and Nov-Dec-Jan rolling 3-month averages. The statistical models predict peaks at 2.4°C during the same periods. Note the wide range of the individual forecasts.

IPC plume of models' ENSO predictions: Oct 2015

(2) What if there is no “Godzilla” El Niño?

Months of hype have raised expectations, as journalists broadcast alarming speculations about the extreme weather we can expect from this El Niño (some examples here). Climate scientists have tended to either joined the frenzy, or stay on the sidelines.

But what if the current model forecasts are correct, and we get a strong El Niño roughly like that in 1997-98? Just weather; no “Godzilla”. Would that be a “dud” vs. expectations (like a big-budget summer film that earns only $100 million, and so loses money)? There have been so many blown forecasts, as in the following examples. Might another be a tipping point in the public’s (already low) confidence?

NASA in 2001: melting arctic sea ice could open “the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia {allowing} “shipping for at least two months a year in as little as five years” (2006) and “the North-West Passage could be open to ordinary shipping for a month each summer” in 2011.

Dr David Viner (senior research scientist at the climatic research unit at U of East Anglia) said in 2001 that within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is.”  (“Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past“ in The Independent.)

After the 2007 low in arctic sea ice there were predictions of a “death spiral” in sea ice and “Arctic summers ice-free ‘by 2013′”. No, neither.

Remember the predictions for more and stronger hurricanes after Katrina in 2005? Plus years of wild hype about individual storms, as we recently saw. On Monday: “Stunning, Historic, Mind-Boggling, and Catastrophic: Hurricane Patricia“. On Tuesday: “Megastorm Patricia Inflicts Little Damage on Mexican Coast” (“quickly dissipated into a low-pressure system that posed little threat beyond heavy rain.”).

Only last year activists and their journalist-allies gave months of warnings about the “super monster El Niño” — another blown forecast.

These blown predictions occur against the larger background of the pause in most forms of extreme weather during the past decade (see examples here, and more here). No wonder polls of the American public (and the world’s) rank climate change at their bottom of high-profile public policy concerns. Another high-profile failure might further erode the public’s confidence in climate scientists.

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

(3)  The weather agencies give us good analysis. We should 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.

The major national and international climate agencies have provided a stream of good analysis about this El Niño cycle. Journalists have too often preferred to instead focus on the more exciting statements of individual scientists and even activists. But the internet puts the reliable information at our fingertips, if we care to use it.

(4)  Should we care about new weather records?

Even if this cycle is slightly stronger than 1997-98, should we care? 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?”

(5)  What’s a strong El Niño?

There are many ways to measure the strength of an El Niño: for example, using the sea surface temperatures in specific regions of the Pacific (peak month or longer periods) or the atmosphere response (e.g., Equatorial Southern Oscillation Index).

NOAA defines 3 levels of strength for El Niño events (source: NOAA). A weak El Niño is a peak in the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) greater than or equal to 0.5°C and less than or equal to 0.9°C. A moderate El Niño is an ONI greater than or equal to 1.0°C and less than or equal to 1.4°C. A strong El Niño is an ONI greater than or equal to 1.5°C.

Clear vision

(6)  For More Information

For a current status report see Bob Tilsdale’s October 2015 ENSO Update – Comparisons with the Other Satellite-Era Multiyear El Niño.

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 prosChoose your facts: learn about the El Niño from journalists or activists — and Prepare for a clickbait avalanche about the super El Niño!

More important are these about the larger climate change debate…

(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
Available at Amazon.

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