Weather & Natural Disasters

El Niño likely to be strong, but no record yet

A father with his children walk over the cracked soil of a 1.5 hectare dried up fishery at the Novaleta town in Cavite province, south of Manila. The drought-inducing El Nino weather phenomenon continue to affect farmlands in the provinces resulting to more damaged crops.
Romeo Ranoco | Reuters

Strong El Niño conditions will likely persist well into next year, but speculation that the event could shatter records may be premature.

There is an 80 percent chance the weather phenomenon—which causes unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific—will continue through the Northern Hemisphere's spring next year, according to an update Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. While some recent models have suggested El Niño could become the strongest on record, those concerns may be overplayed, according to Mike Halpert, deputy director of the CPC.

"We're favoring a strong event, but we're certainly not favoring a record event," he said.

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Effects from the temperature rise vary, but El Niño can lead to increased rainfall and flooding in the southern U.S. and drought in the West Pacific, according to the NOAA. A strong event could have huge effects on California, which is mired in the fourth year of a drought.

Probabilities from forecast models released earlier this month suggest a 60 percent chance the current El Niño will be stronger than the record-setting event in the winter of 1997 and 1998, which caused severe weather systems in various corners of the U.S. But the forecasts from the North American Multi-Model Ensemble generally predict higher temperatures than come to pass, Halpert stressed.

"When you deal with El Niño, they bias very warm," he noted.

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Halpert pointed to NMME forecast models for the Niño 3.4 region in the Pacific Ocean ahead of the 1997 event. Models in September predicted an average temperature departure of 3 degrees Celsius (5.8 Fahrenheit) from October to December of that year, but they ended up being 2.3 degrees Celsius above normal (4.14 Fahrenheit).

Halpert added that the biggest effects from El Niño should come in the winter, and climate variability makes it difficult to predict months ahead of time.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the forecast models ahead of the 1997 El Niño.

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