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The El Niño Effect

The El Niño Effect

Posted on 13 Jun 2024

We have discussed the effects and implications of global warming in our previous articles. Part of the effect of increased global temperature is to exacerbate any existing natural weather patterns. One such weather system that is developing an increasing infamy is known as El Niño.

This system, although complex, follows largely predictable patterns and cycles. El Niño, which takes its turn with the La Niña cycle, are variations in wind strength and ocean temperatures that build up in the enormity of the Pacific Ocean. 

What is El Niño?

The patterns switch roughly every three to seven years, normally with a period of neutral weather in between. El Niño normally lasts about a year, however the La Niña phase is generally longer, with 2023 witnessing the end of an unusual sequence of three successive La Niña years. These changes are brought about by the complex interactions between differing weather systems, including ocean currents and thunderstorms.

The last El Niño ran for three years from 2014, and has been seen to have contributed to the record breaking global temperatures experienced by many, including the hottest year on record in 2016. Under normal conditions, warm surface water is pushed from Australia to South America by the prevailing Easterly winds. This results in warm water collecting in the west Pacific, with cooler water being drawn up towards the easterly Pacific regions. 

When an El Niño cycle starts, the Easterly winds are not as strong, meaning that the warm waters tend to move back to their original location. During a La Niña cycle, the winds are stronger, meaning that the easterly Pacific is even cooler than during normal times.

How Pacific weather patterns affect the world

The world’s oceans are incredibly efficient at absorbing heat, and have been estimated to absorb 90% heat caused by human sourced carbon emissions. As La Niña has the effect of cooling the waters, they become even more effective at offsetting human activities. However, as during the El Niño cycle the warm waters cover the cooler ones, the heat is released into the atmosphere, effectively increasing global temperatures by an estimated 0.2C.

The effect of El Niño can be felt globally, however those areas near the Pacific experience the most dramatic weather. In the Amazon, as temperatures increase, so does the risk of forest fires. Central American countries have experienced drought. Countries on the other side of the Pacific, such as Australia have been known to experience heatwaves, drought, bushfires as well as coral bleaching. The ‘Black Summer’ of Australian bushfires in 2019 was thought to have had El Niño as a contributing factor, with the corresponding Indonesian fires sending a plume of smoke halfway around the world.  

How El Niño affects industry

In Europe, the 2015-2016 El Niño event impacted a number of industry sectors and areas. The most notable effect was the unusually mild winter, which significantly reduced energy demand for heating across the continent. This resulted in lower energy bills for consumers and businesses. Some agricultural sectors also experienced benefits from the warmer temperatures, with increased crop yields and earlier harvests in certain regions.

However, the changing weather patterns associated with El Niño also brought challenges. Heavy rainfall and flooding occurred in several European countries, causing infrastructure damage and disrupting transportation networks. These extreme weather events led to agricultural losses in some areas, offsetting the gains experienced elsewhere. Additionally, the milder winter caused disruption to industries that rely on cold weather, such as winter tourism and snow sports.

Possible effects of El Niño on the UK weather

Warmer and drier summer. 

El Niño tends to weaken the Atlantic  jet stream, leading to a shift in the position of the North Atlantic high pressure system. This can result in warmer and drier weather across the UK, particularly in southern and central regions. Conversely, the North of England and Scotland may experience cooler and wetter conditions due to a greater influence of low-pressure systems.

Increased risk of extreme weather events. 

As El Niño results in changes in atmospheric pressure, leading to increased rainfall in some areas. If this coincides with periods of heavy rain, it could result in flooding in parts of the UK. Additionally, El Niño can strengthen storm systems, which may bring severe winds and further exacerbate flood risks.

Combined with other weather events.

The combination of El Niño with other factors, such as local weather patterns and climate change can cause unseasonal conditions. For example, rising sea levels caused by climate change may exacerbate the effects of flooding caused by El Niño. 

Global Effect

Scientists estimate that there is a 66% chance that the 1.5C global warming threshold will be exceeded between now and 2027. Another report estimated that El Niño could cost the global economy £2.7trillion over the next five years. Countries closest to the Pacific would experience the most severe economic effects, with countries such as Peru and Indonesia experiencing a 10% drop in GDP following an El Niño cycle.

El Niño also endangers marine life along the Pacific Coast. In normal conditions, a phenomenon known as 'upwelling' brings cool, nutrient-rich water up from the ocean depths. When El Niño occurs, this process is suppressed or halted completely. This means fewer phytoplankton along the coast resulting in less food for certain fish.

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