NOAA’s El Niño update (myth-busting the news headlines)

Summary: One of the mysteries of the public climate change debate (now encompassing extreme weather) is the reliance of journalists and interested people on fringe sources when NOAA and the other climate agencies produce clear and timely articles. Such as NOAA’s about this El Niño, including this new one that tells us about this important weather event — and debunks much of what you’ve been told.

El Nino Godzilla

NOAA’s February 2016 El Niño update (plus Q&A)

By Emily Becker, climate scientist at NOAA, 11 February 2016

Despite getting a little boost from some strong winds across the tropical Pacific Ocean in January, the warmer-than-average ocean temperatures that drive El Niño have likely peaked. Now that we’re looking out from the other side of the mountain, let’s answer some questions.

Is this the strongest El Niño on record?

This is definitely one of the strongest three going back to 1950.  It’s hard to say definitively what single El Niño is the strongest, because there are many different ways to measure strength.

The Oceanic Niño Index, the three-month-average sea surface temperature departure from the long-term normal in one region of the Pacific Ocean, is the primary number we use to measure the ocean part of El Niño, and that value for November – January is 2.3°C, tied with the same period in 1997-98. There are other areas of the ocean that we watch, though, including the eastern Pacific (warmer in 1997/98) and the western Pacific (warmer in 2015/16).

Also, don’t forget the “SO” part of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is the all-important atmospheric response. All that extra heat in the tropical Pacific Ocean warms up the atmosphere above it, leading to more rising air, which changes the circulation all around the globe. By one measure (the EQSOI), the El Niño-related changes in the atmospheric circulation in 1997/98 and 2015/16 are tied; by another (the SOI), 1997/98 was stronger.

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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.

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NOAA’s winter update: about the weird warmth and this El Niño

Summary: While journalists too often turn reporting about the weather into clickbait and climate porn the IPCC and major climate agencies produce clear and accurate articles. Why we choose to be poorly informed despite access to the information superhighway is a mystery for future historians to solve. For those that prefer the red pill, here are three articles from NOAA explaining this winter’s weather and the 2015-16 El Niño.

NOAA logo


  1. Why we’re misled; how to get good info.
  2. Explaining our warm winter: “July in Christmas”.
  3. Was this a record strong El Niño?
  4. Here’s the missing key: uncertainty of measurements
  5. Other posts about this El Niño.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Why we’re misled; how to get good info

Journalists report the weather and climate because it provides a stream of lurid stories (always a disaster or record in some form, somewhere) that we enjoy reading. They increasingly rely on activists (often amateur activists) for alarming — entertaining but often misleading — sound bites. Which is why the news media are among our least-trusted institutions, and their profits are melting like this winter’s snow.

Journalists — and citizens — interested in accurate information can turn to reliable and clear articles from NOAA. NOAA had a good 2015. They accurately predicted this would be among the 3 strongest on record, contrary to the hysterical predictions of a “monster” or “Godzilla” El Niño. And it appears to have peaked as their models predicted in early December, although the strongest impacts on the weather lie ahead in January and February.

The following three excerpts explain key things about this winter’s weather. What’s causing it? (Spoiler:  as usual, there are several factors at work.) How strong is this El Niño (using an alternative measure)? And they explain the key detail missing in almost every story about weather records: the uncertainty of these measurements.

 (2) Excerpt from “July in Christmas

By Michelle L’Heureux
At NOAA’s website, 8 January 2016

{W}hat on earth was going on with the weather?  Let’s zoom out and look at November and December together because they were fairly similar.  As you can see below, temperatures were strongly above-average across much of North America (shown by the yellow/orange/red shading), with the exception of the western U.S. which was either near or slightly below average (shown by the blue shading).

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NOAA debunks the hysteria about this El Niño. Why don’t we listen?

Summary: The coverage of this El Niño shows the fear and propaganda (used as clickbait by journalists) that clouds American’s vision of the world, keeping us ignorant. It also shows how the antidote lies within our reach. For the El Niño that means reading the NOAA’s well-written reports that accurately predicted this would be among the 3 strongest on record, contrary to the hysterical predictions by activists of a “monster” El Niño. It appears to have peaked, but the full impacts on the weather lie ahead.  {2nd post of 2 today.}

NOAA logo

The title of NOAA’s latest report about this El Niño gently mocks the hype about its effects (e.g., a “Godzilla El Niño”, destroyer of cites). The text debunks exaggerations about it being the greatest ever. So far this El Nino matches NOAA’s prediction that it would be among the three strongest on record (i.e., in the 65 years back to 1950).

This is another of NOAA’s well-written articles that put the El Niño into its proper historical context as a normal weather event. As usual these days, activists and their journalist fans often ignore what NOAA says (just as they do with the reports by the IPCC) in favor of exaggerations and wild predictions.

I recommend that you read the full essay. Here are some of the high points. Red emphasis added.

Excerpt: “December El Niño update: phenomenal cosmic powers!

By Emily Becker, with comments by Anthony Barnston
At NOAA’s website, 10 December 2015

If you’ve been following the development of this El Niño, you may have heard in the media that sea surface temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific are at near-record highs. Are we seeing the most powerful El Niño ever?

… The important effects of El Niño on the U.S. and other regions are related to its average strength over the fall and winter, not how strong it is on any particular day or week. We do monitor the weekly and monthly changes in the sea surface temperature and the atmosphere to get a hint at where things are headed, but we’ll ultimately judge the strength of this El Niño by its average over the seasons.

… Right out of the gate, let’s talk about that November sea surface temperature in the Niño3.4 region. The ERSSTv4 data set shows that this November was 2.35°C warmer than the November average — tied with November 1997’s 2.33°C. (Yes, I know those numbers aren’t identical, but they’re within the statistical margin of error, which means as far as rankings are concerned, they’re tied.), This dataset has been carefully maintained to ensure that it is historically consistent, so it’s the best, most reliable one to use to compare 2015 to 1997 (or any other year.)

The Niño3.4 ERSSTv4 for September–November is 2.04°C, second to 1997’s 2.18°C. Since we’re looking at this El Niño very likely placing in the top three (with 1997-98 and 1982-83), let’s compare some of the other components of the system right now. I’m going to focus on 1997-98, since by most assessments that’s the strongest El Niño in our short, 1950-present record.

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This El Niño is not Godzilla. What can we learn from the 2 years of hype?

Summary: After two years of hype (often hysterical), this El Niño might peak in December and then rapidly decline. No “super monster” or “Godzilla” El Niño; just severe weather (we won’t know how severe until it ends). With the UN Conference of Parties in Paris (COP21) still running in Paris, it’s time to start thinking about lessons learned if activists are wrong and this El Niño doesn’t wreck destruction on the world.

Godzilla in action

Let’s rewind the news tape to better understand where we are (see the posts at the end for documentation). Last year climate activists warned of the “super monster” El Niño coming. It was a dud. This year they warned of the “Godzilla” El Niño, telling lurid tales of the epic destruction that awaited us. NOAA provided a calming voice of reason, largely ignored by journalists who found the activists provided better clickbait.

In mid-November the major weather models predicted that this El Niño was peaking, and by January would begin a rapid decline in intensity. That was ignored, as journalists trumpeted that this “Massive El Niño sweeping globe is now the biggest ever recorded” (New Scientist, 2 Dec), forgetting to mention by some (not all) metrics, by small amounts (perhaps insignificant), and in the short records.

Eventually the news begins to catch up with the data, seen in technical analysis such as NOAA’s Weekly ENSO report and Bob Tisdale’s El Nino Update.

This El Niño is not over. It might strength again. Many of the effects have yet to appear. But If the models’ forecasts prove accurate, what might we learn from the 2014 and 2015 bouts of El Niño hysteria?

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Update on El Niño: will Gaia disappoint the climate activists?

Summary: Climate alarmists have run wild with predictions about the “monster” “Godzilla” El Niño, their last throw of the dice before the COP-21 climate conference in Paris. Here is an example by Brad Plummer, with some debunking. The latest forecasts of the major climate models suggest that it will disappoint activists (but match NOAA’s more cautious predictions).

El Nino in action, from NOAA

When did we “pathologize” weather? When did commonplace weather become abnormal? The debates over the past and future of anthropogenic climate change are of great importance (climate change is ubiquitous in history). But the news increasingly describes normal weather as a kind of plague, something to fear.

For example see “El Niño, explained: A guide to the biggest weather story of 2015” by Brad Plummer at Vox. Plummer’s perspective is clearly stated by his tagline: “On the apocalypse beat, more or less.” His article is a masterpiece of propaganda, creating fear to advance his public policy agenda. A few excerpts, matched with reality, tell the tale.

“Now it looks like we’re in for a monster. The El Niño currently brewing in the Pacific is shaping up to be one of the strongest ever recorded.”

Plummer links to a page by the World Meteorological Organization, which gives different message. Their forecast is “placing this El Niño event among the three strongest previous events since 1950 (1972-73, 1982-83, 1997-98).” Plummer says “strongest ever recorded”, which suggests a long-term record. Unlike saying one of the four strongest since 1950, which is not alarming.

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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

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