Unpredictable Extreme Weather: Beyond Summer’s End

On Labor Day, the weather in the United States ranged from a high of under 90 degrees from Minnesota to Louisiana. It’s important to note that this scorching heat is not an isolated incident. In fact, nearly one-third of Americans are currently under heat alerts. This summer has been nothing short of devastating in terms of climate extremes. It’s difficult to find the right words to describe the magnitude of these events.

For starters, June was the hottest on record since humans began keeping track. July surpassed that record and brought even more extreme heat. In fact, Phoenix, Arizona averaged a temperature of 102 degrees, resulting in people receiving third-degree burns from touching doorknobs. The consequences of the heat waves extended beyond discomfort for humans – livestock in Iowa actually died in their pens. And it wasn’t just heat that wreaked havoc this summer. Canadian wildfires spread smoke across large areas of the United States, Vermont experienced flash floods, and wildfires destroyed parts of Maui.

Despite the arrival of fall, we shouldn’t expect relief from these extreme weather patterns. El Niño, a naturally occurring cycle known for its disruptive effects on global weather, has made a comeback, and it’s predicted to be a strong one. The southern United States is likely to experience wetter conditions, while the North can expect a warm winter. While El Niño cycles have always had some variability, experts believe that climate change has now amplified their impact. This summer has clearly demonstrated the power of climate change in intensifying extreme weather patterns, and El Niño could further exacerbate these conditions.

It’s important to highlight that although El Niño technically began in June, it may not have played a significant role in the extremes of this summer. That was the result of the climate crisis. Temperature records across the United States were shattered, with Kansas City’s heat index approaching that of Death Valley and Chicago having to reduce train speeds due to the stress caused by high temperatures. In the past, scientists were hesitant to establish a direct link between global warming and extreme weather events. However, they can now accurately measure the extent to which climate change contributes to events like heat waves. A recent study found that climate change increased July’s heat waves in the United States, Europe, and China by as much as 2 degrees Celsius.

With the summer’s extremes fresh in our minds, it’s concerning to face the peak of an El Niño cycle. Normally, winds move from east to west across the tropics due to the Earth’s rotation, pushing warm surface water away from South America. But every few years, these winds weaken, leading to a buildup of warm water along the Americas and the emergence of El Niño. This cycle can cause significant variations in global storms and droughts. El Niño has been dubbed “the Great Nudger” because it nudges atmospheric patterns across the globe, resulting in recurring weather patterns.

Contrary to La Niña, which can absorb more heat due to cooler ocean temperatures, El Niño temporarily boosts global warming, raising global temperatures by around 0.1 degrees Celsius. However, the effects vary depending on location, with some areas experiencing cooler conditions while others become much warmer. The strong El Niño in 1997-98, for example, led to flooding in California and severe droughts in Indonesia and the Philippines. In 2016, another record-breaking El Niño contributed to the warmest year on record, raising global temperatures by 0.12 degrees Celsius.

Climate change is also likely intensifying the impact of El Niño. Warmer air holds more moisture, setting the stage for more extreme precipitation, while hotter temperatures worsen drought conditions. L’Heureux explains that El Niño impacts are no longer isolated but are now influenced by climate change. This is troubling news for the fall and winter, as ocean temperatures continue to rise, suggesting a stronger El Niño cycle. El Niño’s effects will become more apparent in the coming months, with the southern United States likely experiencing wetter conditions and the Pacific Northwest facing drier conditions. The northern part of the country may even see a balmy winter. These climate forecasts are based on probabilities, as the exact timing and intensity of El Niño cycles can vary.

Based on past El Niños, the United States may be in for more extreme weather. In 1997-98, California experienced 150% of its normal rainfall, leading to devastating mudslides. The Midwest had an unusually warm winter, with temperatures averaging 12 degrees higher than normal. While some may enjoy a milder fall and winter, this could potentially lead to higher temperatures later in the year and increase the risk of wildfires next summer. Other downstream effects can result from disrupting normal weather patterns. For example, in 2016, a cool, wet spring led to increased cases of plague and West Nile virus in the Southwest, while unseasonable heat in Alaska affected the salmon harvest and caused shark bites off the Oregon coast.

It’s important to remember that El Niño is not just a problem for the United States; developing countries are often the hardest hit. The coming months may have far-reaching repercussions for health, food security, water management, and the environment, according to Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization. The cumulative effect of heat could push global temperatures past the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold, surpassing records set during the last El Niño in 2016.

According to L’Heureux, El Niño is predicted to last through February 2024 with a more than 95% chance. Beyond that, it’s uncertain. El Niños typically persist for about a year, but in a warmer future, they may last longer. The transitions between El Niño and La Niña phases may also slow down, leading to extended droughts and more summers dominated by heat waves. While these cycles are complex and not yet fully understood, it’s crucial to gain insights into their changing dynamics. Accurate climate models depend on our understanding of current conditions to predict future climate impacts. The uncertainty surrounding these models underscores the larger uncertainty we face in relation to climate change. Weather patterns can vary significantly from year to year, and it’s important to remember that climate change is not always a linear process. This summer’s accelerated impacts are a stark reminder of the growing trend of rising temperatures.

Overall, the prospects for fall and winter may be disconcerting, especially with the looming presence of El Niño. However, it’s essential to stay informed and be prepared for potential climate extremes. The effects of climate change and El Niño may be unpredictable, but our commitment to addressing and mitigating these issues remains vital for the future of our planet.


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