El Niño, The Media Star: Separating Hype from Probability

Summary: Unscrupulous activists and publishers desperate for clicks prey our fearfulness, giving America hysteria about the normal events of life. Last year was Ebola and the “super monster” El Nino (both duds). This year we have the “Godzilla El Nino” (unprecedented since 1950, excerpt for 1982-83 and 1978-79). There are sources of reliable information. Previous posts pointed to journalists and our meteorological agencies. This post gives more detail about its effects, giving an excerpt from the Browning World Climate Monitor.

North America during a Strong El Nino
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

El Niño, The Media Star: Separating Hype from Probability

Excerpt from the November 2015 issue of the Browning World Climate Bulletin
Posted with their generous permission.

El Niño may be the only climate event that needs its own press agent. Once it was determined that there will be a strong El Niño, it has dominated the headlines. Some of these headlines are intelligent warnings and others are exercises in attention-grabbing hyperbole. Let’s separate the probability from the hype.

The Danger of Analog Years

One of the great dangers of some of the current headlines is that many of the reporters are comparing this upcoming El Niño event to the huge El Niño of 1997/1998. While both years have powerful El Niños dominating the Tropical Pacific, they have a number of climate factors that do not match.

Climate probability is a mosaic of factors. North American winters are shaped by what is happening in the Atlantic and Arctic as well as the Pacific. Even in the Pacific, El Niño is not the only factor affecting the West Coast.

Summary forecast for the US: Expect a strong El Nino this winter to warmer conditions in the northern tier of states and most of Canada lead to lower heating demand, as well as fewer travel and transportation difficulties. The southern tier of states should get cooler, wetter conditions, usually enough to end drought conditions in all but Southern California. California should expect more precipitation but not enough to end the drought.

The West Coast – The Region Most Affected by El Niño

Comparing the Pacific: 1979 and 2015
Satellite pictures from NOAA.

Some of the wildest headlines have been from the West Coast, where many view the event as a possible salvation from the four-year long drought. A few good ones are:

Readers of the Browning Bulletin know that historical evidence gives a more than 90% probability that there will be good rainfall in California this winter but it will only partially relieve drought conditions. The four-year drought and groundwater drainage has led to a giant shortfall, 6.5 trillion gallons back in April and much greater now. In Central California an area greater the state of Rhode Island has sunk as much as 6 feet (183 cm), wrecking and damaging irrigation and water supply infrastructures. Coastal areas have had sea water surge into aquafers to replace the missing fresh water.

The problems that the West Coast faces in order to end the drought are:

  1. Heavy El Niño rains are a mixture of heavy tropical precipitation and normal Pacific storms from the Northwest. The tropical moisture has reached Mexico and should take several weeks to work its way up the coast. Most experts expect only near-normal rainfall this November and most of December with above average heat increasing evaporation.
  2. The main reservoir of California is its snowpack which dropped to almost nothing this year. Its water system is geared to pour snow melt into storage reservoirs. Even heavy precipitation will not restore a giant snowpack when temperatures are high.
  3. California’s major reservoirs are in the north and only 3 of the seven large El Niños since 1950, less than 50%, had heavy precipitation in this key area. The reservoirs in the southern areas that typically get reliable El Niño rainfall are small.

History suggests that Central and Southern California should have heavy rainfall while Northern California good rainfall. Historically much of this rainfall comes in the form of torrential rains and flash flooding from tropical streams of moisture called atmospheric rivers. Meanwhile, the coastal Pacific Northwest and British Columbia get heavy rains with occasional “Pineapple Expresses”. Inland, the Northwest and Alberta and Saskatchewan, have an 80% chance of a warm, dry winter. …

{For more information see Key facts about the drought that’s reshaping California.}

Bárðarbunga Volcano
Bárðarbunga Volcano. Photo by Peter Hartree on 4 September 2014. Wikimedia Commons.

When Will Europe Cool Off?

Summary forecast: The combination of the strong El Niño and cooling water in the North Atlantic shaped Europe’s record breaking hot summer and dry fall. These climate conditions historically keep Western and Southern Europe warm through winter. The Siberian Cold from the east will make Eastern Europe cold and snow covered. Central Europe will feel the impact from all sides leading to a wet stormy winter.

It’s been a rough year for Europe. … Even nature has taken a turn for the worse. Scientists believe that this past summer was the hottest in European history with some of the worst recorded droughts for several countries. (Remember, accurate and widespread historical weather records start in the early 1970’s for many of these studies). Agriculture suffered, energy costs soared and dependable rainfall was almost non-existent showing the lack of a backup plan for irrigation around Europe.

… Perhaps the only thing that most of Europe could agree on is that the summer was mostly the fault of man-made global warming. The problem is that two short-term climatic factors helped to create the brutal summer of 2015, and man had nothing to do with either of them.

The 2015 El Niño was incredibly strong. While this meant better overall precipitation and lower temperatures for much of North America, this wasn’t so for Europe. El Niños normally have minimal effects on European weather but the El Niño of 2015 was a different animal.

… In late August of 2014, Iceland’s Bárðarbunga volcano began erupting underneath a large glacier. What likely would have been an amazing ash plume was blocked, but the large quantities of sulphur dioxide gas blasted through the glacier and didn’t stop until February 28th of 2015. Sulphur in the atmosphere is a cooling gas.

Beginning in summer, scientists noticed a cold blob of water south of Iceland. They were and still are baffled by the unexpected cold. The main supported answer for this anomaly is that melting Greenland glaciers are slowing the Gulf Stream. While the glaciers are melting and that could be slowing the current, scientists do not acknowledge that in that same area millions of metric tons of sulfur dioxide was recently erupted from an Icelandic volcano. The amount of SO2 produced by Bárðarbunga over the 7 months of its eruption was more than the continent of Europe produces in a year. That’s a lot of SO2 swirling around one small area. Much of this sulfur was low-lying, affecting surface weather, not the stratosphere.

North Atlantic cold "blob"
© Evelyn Browning Garriss.

Whatever the reason for the cold blob, its effect on summer kept Central and Northern Europe warmer than normal. The cold water cooled the air above it, changing air pressure. This in turn altered wind patterns. Europe stayed hot as the wind and weather patterns generated by the cold blob continued to block colder temperatures from entering the continent. Now that summer is a painful memory and fall has almost ended, what does winter hold for Europe?

Neither the El Niño nor wind patterns caused by the cold blob from Bárðarbunga are expected to abate any time soon. This means that the early part of winter is likely to be mild and potentially even hot for most of Southern, Central and Northern Europe. Eastern Europe on the other hand will be affected by the “Beast from the East” . Siberian Cold. The North Asian cold is likely to seep into western Russia and Eastern Europe leading to colder temperatures and snowfall.

Since the eruption of Bárðarbunga is over, the cold blob is expected weaken before the El Niño does. While the El Niño will likely be strong enough to keep warmer and drier conditions throughout Southern Europe, the waning cold blob will allow more cold air will sweep in from the Arctic, crashing with the southern warm air. By mid to late winter, rain and snowstorms are likely to start for Central Europe and colder temperatures will enter Northern Europe. Western Europe will still have stronger ties to the warmer Atlantic water but some showers are likely to begin. Eastern Europe and Russia will continue their cold stormy trend. (This historically has meant enough snow cover to protect winter wheat and other crops.)

Forecast for Europe, November 2015 Browning World Climate Bulletin
Forecast for Europe, November 2015 © Evelyn Browning Garriss.

Europe has experienced El Niños in the past. It has also experienced Icelandic volcanic eruptions. Never in known recorded history has Europe had to deal with such a strong sulfuric volcano eruption and a strong El Niño at the same time. This winter forecast is attempting to take the weather that occurs 60% of the time from a strong El Niño and combine it with the known impact of Icelandic volcanic eruptions.

The El Niño and the cold blob can change drastically and updates will continue as we keep an eye on these two short-term natural climate events. Thankfully for Europe, despite a potentially difficult winter, record-breaking cold or snowstorms seem very unlikely.

{For details about the North Atlantic cold “blob” see this WaPo story. For information about El Nino’s effects on other areas of the world and on specific industries, subscribe to the Browning World Climate Monitor.}

© Evelyn Browning Garriss


Evelyn Browning

About the Browning World Climate Bulletin

For over 35 years, The Browning World Climate Bulletin has been simply the best, most accurate source for long-term climate forecasts. Our subscribers include a diverse group of people and institutions interested in profiting from opportunities presented by changing climate, and those looking to protect their interests that might be affected by changing climate.

They include farmers and ranchers, commodities brokers, large banks and financial institutions, hedge funds, agricultural supply vendors, and people interested in our global climate. See the Bulletin’s website for more information.  Download a sample issue here.

About Evelyn Browning-Garriss

She is a historical climatologist who advises everyone from Texas cattle raisers to Midwestern utilities and Canadian banks about what the coming season will bring. She has spent over 30 years as a business consultant, editor and author explaining the impact of changing climate on economic and social trends. Editor of the Browning World Climate Bulletin, Evelyn has authored or co-authored five books on the changing climate’s impact on water supplies, agriculture, business and terrorism.

For the past 20 years she has taught professional seminars, lectured and/or conducted international seminars in the United States, Canada, England, Singapore, Korea, Central America and the Pacific Islands. In addition to her work as editor of the Browning World Climate Bulletin, she does daily consulting and contract research for businesses and investors.

These sections are reposted from their website.

Clear vision

For More Information

For a status report as of October 30, see Bob Tilsdale’s October 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. For more information see previous excerpts from the Browning World Climate Bulletin and all posts about El Nino, especially these…

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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