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Climate | El Niño

2019 could be the hottest year in human history


Isabella O'Malley
Digital Writer/Climate Change Reporter

Saturday, December 8, 2018, 8:08 PM - The influence of El Niño can be felt far and wide and heavy rainfalls, catastrophic flooding, and mass crop failures can all be attributed to this powerful climate cycle. Early compilations of 2018's data indicate that this year will likely become the fourth warmest on record, and the developing El Niño event is increasing the odds that 2019 will be the hottest year that human life has ever experienced.

There is an 80 per cent chance that an El Niño will form and a 55 to 60 per cent change that the event will continue into spring of 2019, according to the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate scientists are closely monitoring how human-induced climate change influences El Niño, and research confirms that human-released greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, have intensified El Niño events that can drive regional temperature extremes, destroy coral reefs, create droughts, and worsen wildfires.

Between November 4, 2018 and December 1, 2018 equatorial sea surface temperatures (SST) were above average across the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Climate Prediction Center/ NCEP

This study projects that the current rates of climate change will prolong weather extremes and natural disasters, which will increase human deaths caused by these conditions by 50 per cent on average from now until 2100, but could increase up to 300 per cent depending on future greenhouse gas emissions.

Five of the warmest years on NASA's record have happened since 2010, and a warmer atmosphere means stronger hurricanes, rising oceans, and longer heatwaves that burn hotter. Before the rapid atmospheric warming that has occurred since the turn of the century, a strong El Niño event from 1997 to 1998 claimed 24,000 lives globally, caused $34 billion USD in economic damages and loses, and required extensive international aid to respond to droughts, flooding, and fires in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. While this El Niño was exceptionally strong, this experience taught the world that each cycle can wreak havoc on the world's weather and cause conditions that have never been seen before.

On top of the dire prediction for record-breaking heat in 2019, the interaction between climate cycles and abnormally warm temperatures indicates that future El Niño events could severely worsen climate change impacts that virtually no country on Earth is prepared to face. 

Some perilous climate battles that took place just a few months ago demonstrate that the increasing weather extremes cause human health emergencies and slam economies - heatwaves claimed thousands of lives and hospitalized even more, California had it's worst wildfire season on record as wildfires simultaneously burned in the Arctic Circle, and the combined costs of Hurricane Michael and Florence could total over $50 billion USD.

Residents escaping the Carr Fire that burned in Shasta and Trinity counties in California. The 2018 wildfire season is the most destructive and deadly wildfire season in the states record, with nearly 2 million acres burned. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Industries have taken note of the changing environmental conditions, and significant strides have been made to develop clean energy technologies, tackle pollution, and invest in conserving the natural environment. Even though renewable energies have boomed and coal production has possibly peaked, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel sources reached an all-time high in 2018. Fossil fuel sources make up approximately 90 per cent of all human-created emissions and over 37 billion tons were released, which is an increase of 2.7 per cent from 2017's emissions output. 

HOW DOES EL NIÑO FORM?

El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which is the most influential climate pattern used in forecasting and can last from a number of months to three years.

This event occurs when temperatures along the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean begin to warm and shift eastward along the equator. This movement of warm water towards the coast of South America also coincides with weakening prevailing trade winds, which sets off a feedback loop between the ocean and the atmosphere. 

The typical effects of an El Nino on wintertime across North America. Credit: Climate.gov

The energy in this feedback loop fuels jet streams and causes their paths to shift eastward and influence the track of low and high pressure systems in the Northern Hemisphere, typically resulting in temperature and precipitation changes for the months between December and February.

WATCH BELOW: NASA COMPARES THE 2015-16 EL NINO TO THE SUPER EL NINO OF 1997-98


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