How much damage has this El Niño done?

Summary: Now that the El Niño appears to have peaked, journalists tell us how horrific the damage is so far (most of the effects on America lie ahead). Let’s see what they say — and what NOAA says. Spoiler: don’t believe the clickbait.

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

NOAA, conservative and accurate as usual, says in their Jan 14 El Niño Diagnostic Discussion that “El Niño has already produced significant global impacts and is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months.”

Journalists jazz up the story. The Daily News reports that “Forecasters have revealed the catastrophic effects this year’s record breaking El Niño has had on weather around the world.” NBC News: “The El Niño currently wreaking havoc around the world is forecast to only worsen in 2016.” None of these give specifics, such as comparing this year vs. past averages or records.

The Guardian is, as usual, gives some of the most vivid weather porn.

“From some of the worst floods ever known in Britain, to record-breaking temperatures over the Christmas holiday in the US and forest fires in Australia, the link between the tumultuous weather events experienced around the world in the last few weeks is likely to be down to the natural phenomenon known as El Niño making the effects of man-made climate change worse, say atmospheric scientists.

“… The latest floods, droughts and extreme weather are what might be expected of a strong El Niño, according to the WMO. “Severe droughts and devastating flooding are being experienced throughout the tropics, and subtropical zones bear the hallmarks of this El Niño,” said the organisation’s chief, Michel Jarraud.

“… The widespread El Niño effects are now being felt in Africa, Latin America, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the WMO said. In Central America, one of the most severe droughts on record has left 3.5 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in need of food aid. The UN says that more than 2 million people have been affected in Peru and Ecuador.

“In Ethiopia, the government estimates that 10.2 million people will need help in 2016 at a cost of $1.4bn (£944m). Elsewhere in Africa, staple crops have been devastated in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa. Food shortages are expected to peak in southern Africa in February.

“… The warm Pacific temperatures have also led to a record number of hurricanes and cyclones. According to the US government’s national oceanic and atmospheric administration, there were 18 named storms in 2015, including 13 hurricanes, nine of which were category three or higher. This is the highest number recorded since reliable measurements started in 1971.”

How much of this results from the El Niño? How much is even true? A little research finds many holes in the story. Let’s start by checking The Guardian’s claims about regional extreme weather with NOAA’s International Climate Prediction Center.

Latin America

Despite what The Guardian implies, the Central American drought began in mid-2014, the year before this El Niño. As for the weather now, we turn to NOAA — whose Central America page reports no extreme weather in the recent past — or expected in the near future.

“Over the previous 30-day period, dating to December 12th, most regions have observed slightly below-normal amounts of rain. … Vegetation indices remain quite good, especially in Pacific facing portions of the region.”

NOAA: Central America conditions, 14 January 2016

How about Africa?

As with Latin America, the drought in southeastern Africa that began in 2014 is blamed on the 2015-16 El Niño. NOAA’s Africa page provides current information. Their current Africa weather hazards page shows a small area with drought (no “severe drought”), of the kind commonplace in Africa. The graph shows yellow as abnormal dryness, orange as drought, and green as severe drought for that period.

“Significantly suppressed and poorly distributed seasonal rainfall since October has negatively affected many countries in southern Africa. Exacerbated by a poor rainfall seasonal performance last year, several consecutive weeks of inadequate rainfall has already led to reduced water availability, delayed planting, permanently wilted crops, reduced planted areas, and livestock deaths and other adverse ground conditions over many areas.”

Header for NOAA: Africa status report, 14 January 2016Header for NOAA: Africa status report, 14 January 2016

What about Southeast Asia?

This from their South Asia page shows rainfall anomalies for December 2015: rainfall more or less than usual for December. Some areas have too much rain. Some have too little rain. Do you see an El Niño impact?

NOAA: December 2015 rainfall anomaly

What about the record hurricane season?

The Guardian’s skillful writing conceals that 2015 was the second most-active year for hurricanes, behind 1992 (a moderate El Niño year), as Wikipedia states

“A record 31 tropical depressions developed, of which 26 became named storms, just shy of the record 27 set in 1992. A record-tying 16 became hurricanes, and a record 11 storms became major hurricanes throughout the season. …”

Accumulated Cyclone Energy is a better measure by which it was not an unusual year overall. In the Eastern Pacific basin it was the 2nd strongest on record, close behind 1992. See the interactive graph at Wunderground.


NOAA said this would be among the three strongest El Niños on record (since 1950) — depending upon the measure used. And so it was.

As for the news media, they have to deliver after two years of hype about the coming super monster Godzilla El Niño.  So they quote record highs for this El Niño (by statistically insignificant increments), and ignore other metrics which aren’t records — and make sweeping claims about its effects. The Guardian it seems finds El Niño guilty for much of this year’s extreme weather (even slightly extreme), anywhere — no matter when it began. Nor do they provide any evidence. Attribution is difficult, so they substitute bold claims.

A little investigation shows that some of the Guardian’s claims about events appear exaggerated, to put it gently.

Meanwhile NOAA continues their good work. Eventually they will give a comprehensive accounting of this El Niño’s effects, probably refuting the lurid descriptions of so many journalists — and especially The Guardian’s hysteria.  Perhaps some day journalists will routinely check with NOAA rather than publishing clickbait — but only if we ever come to prefer real news.

Getting ready for the La Nina

Until the public grows bored, there will always be weather — and journalists will give us weather porn: “First was El Niño, now brace for La Niña” by CNBC, 16 Jan 2016 — Excerpt (blames the El Nino for everything except the sun rising each day) …

“Wild weather swings from the phenomenon known as El Niño have rocked commodities and countries from Australia to Paraguay. Now, analysts are tipping renewed jitters spurred by La Nina, El Niño’s little sister.”

Other posts about this El Niño

  1. Learning from 2014: Looks like yet another false alarm. Probably no super monster El Niño coming this year.
  2. Choose your facts: learn about the El Niño from journalists or activists.
  3. Prepare for a clickbait avalanche about the super El Niño!
  4. El Niño, The Media Star: Separating Hype from Probability — From the Browning World Climate Bulletin.
  5. Update on El Niño: will Gaia disappoint the climate activists?
  6. This El Niño is not Godzilla. What can we learn from the 2 years of hype?
  7. NOAA debunks the hysteria about this El Niño. Why don’t we listen?
  8. NOAA’s winter update: about the weird warmth and the El Niño.

For More Information

See Bob Tisdale’s analysis “How Strong Was That El Niño or La Niña? – No One Knows For Sure”.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change.

14 thoughts on “How much damage has this El Niño done?”

  1. It’s not quite fair to characterize 2014 as “the year before this El Nino”. Using the ERSSTv3 dataset (before the “pause-busting” revisions that came with v4!), I believe the ONI threshold of 0.5C would have been breached for the requisite number of consecutive 3-month averaging periods, starting in October 2014. While NOAA was reluctant to call the Nino in 2014 (because the ocean-atmosphere coupling was ambiguous), the SST anomalies had definitely started to creep up long before the event really started to take off in 2015. Given the subtlety of atmospheric dynamics, it might be hard to say definitively whether this had an effect on Latin American precipitation even in 2014.

    1. sflicht,

      (1) “it might be hard to say definitively whether this had an effect on Latin American precipitation even in 2014.”

      I do not believe that is a useful way to frame this — effect or no effect. Magnitudes matter.

      (2) “it might be hard to say definitively whether this had an effect on Latin American precipitation even in 2014.”

      There is no point is us guessing about this. Can you cite any peeer-reviewed research or reports from a major climate agency saying that the very slight warming in the Nino3.4 Pacific region during late 2014 had any substantial effect on the Latin American drought? If not, then we can assume that it didn’t.

      (3) “NOAA was reluctant to call the Nino in 2014”

      Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe NOAA “calls” the El Nino purely on a quantitative basis (the ONI), without subjective assessment.

  2. You’re right that they seem to go purely on the ONI, but I vaguely remember that in fall of 2014 they were waffling about whether they would use their “discretion” if the event remained borderline. (I don’t have the reference handy, but I’m almost certainly thinking about something posted by Anthony Barnston [sp?] on NOAA”s ENSO blog, see In retrospect, my guess is that they had word from the temperature data analysts that the ERSSTv4 dataset would cause substantive changes to the 3-month averaged anomalies used to compute ONI. Consequently I think they didn’t want to declare an El Nino only to have to change their mind with the switchover to the new dataset. I think I recall that, as luck would have it, the data was released in time for them not to have to backtrack in this manner.

    Your points (1) and (2) are well-taken. But I think in (2) you are overconfident about “major climate agencies” having enough knowledge to confidently attribute regional precipitation patterns to El Nino versus other causes. Basically I think climate modeling is not sufficiently advanced to say anything useful in this regard. In the more well-studied regions (North America, Australia), the precipitation patterns supposedly linked to El Nino years are probably roughly as statistically robust as the rules of thumb found in the Old Farmer’s Almanac. (After all, we have good SST data for just a few ENSO cycles’ worth of history, so the sample size is too small to say anything really robust.) So even if reputable scientific sources are reluctant to put forth a causal link from El Nino to drought, I hardly think that constitutes strong evidence that there is no such link!

    1. sflicht,

      “you are overconfident about “major climate agencies” having enough knowledge to confidently attribute regional precipitation patterns to El Nino versus other causes.”

      That’s not at all what I said. Rather, there is no point about amateurs guessing about it. If they don’t know, you and I don’t either. If they don’t say the El Nino had an effect on the Lat Am drought, nothing is gained by us gasing about it.

  3. Also, the Multivariate ENSO Index was also basically consistent with a weak El Nino during summer 2014. See

    (Note on normalization: the MEI is normalized to mean 0 and std deviation 1. Conveniently, this means that the cutoff value of 0.5 corresponds roughly to the 70th percentile, i.e. if you define El Nino conditions as MEI > 0.5 and La Nina as MEI < -0.5, then El Nino, La Nino and neutral have relative frequencies 30%, 30%, 40%, which matches pretty well with NOAA's definition using +/- 0.5C anomalies in ENSO 3.4 (as measured using the 3-month ONI average).)

  4. You didn’t mention fires in Australia, and our summer is only half over. We’ve had fires,and will probably have more. We have them every summer, and we’re increasingly good at dealing with them. But measuring fires is not easy, and connecting their incidence to el Nino is no easier to argue for.

    1. Don,

      It is The Guardian’s job to provide evidence for their assertions. I tested their claims by comparing a few of them with some easily available evidence from NOAA.

      “But measuring fires is not easy”

      The US has the National Interagency Fire Center, which provides historical data on the number of acres burned per year. Perhaps Australia does as well.

      “… and connecting their incidence to el Nino is no easier to argue for.”

      Yes, that is the missing link to the Guardian’s assertions. I just looked for evidence that there were large events of the sort they described. As you note, analysis showing attribution of them to El Nino requires much more work. Color me skeptical that the Guardian has such analysis.

  5. “…Wild weather swings from the phenomenon known as El Niño have rocked commodities and countries from Australia to Paraguay.”

    Strange use of hyperbole given that only Chile and Argentina are between Australia and Paraguay.

    And ‘rocked commodities’ as well. Who knew?

  6. We dont understand El Nino, not nearly. We have current best guesses and a large piece of the puzzle unsolved.

    Therefor any claims that it is or is not causing other not quite fully understood weather are highly uncertain, no matter how one might use language to obfuscate that fact.

    0 journalistic integrity. That’s why we now call them the media, they are not journalists.

    1. Sejehd Asi,

      I believe you have too idealized a view of journalism. Since we will not pay for the news, advertisers are their customers. We are the product (i.e., what they deliver to their customers).

      To get our attention they tell stories about current events — so they tell stories that we want to hear. They don’t report stories that disturb us too much, clash with our biases, or bore us. In other words, we determine the boundaries of the stories they report. So we get clickbait instead of hard news, much as McDonalds service junk food instead of health food.

      When we point to the “man in the mirror” as the problem for these things, we will have taken the first step to reform.

  7. IPCC are maybe 7% certain of a link between CO2 and extreme weather, let the Guardian.. tells lies aplenty.

    Like claiming an ice age was averted because of “man made climate change”, one model, no verification, nothing. Treated as absolute truth without scrutiny.

    I guess Guardian journalists never heard of retractions.. papers are NOT facts, stop treating the ones you agree with as gospel, and only considering papers you agree with as legitimate.

    Our long term predictions are a joke because we cant model negative feedbacks, we cant model the oceans, and we cant model CO2 other than using fudges.

    That is why current temperature trend is at Dr Hansen’s 0 emissions scenario (draconian emissions cuts globally).

    Lastly, global average mean temperature is a residue of all the climatic activity the world over, it is not a metric, there is no global climate.
    Average temperature for Southern England is a metric, because Southern England has a climate pattern, the globe does not, it is chaotic.

    We’ve not even figured out ENSO yet, and it would take our best computers 40 years to model something close to actual climate (without simplified fudge factors)

    1. Sajehd,

      “IPCC are maybe 7% certain of a link between CO2 and extreme weather”

      Can you support that in any way? AR5 describes a wide range of extreme weather, attributing most to past & future warming with confidence levels of “medium” (more or less). Far above 7%.

  8. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | intsera

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: