Atmospheric phenomena El Niño and La Niña are increasing in such frequency and intensity that they have become mega climate events with the potential to devastate large areas of the planet. Meteorologists are talking about “Super Boys” and even “Mega Girls” that we need to prepare for.
Many will remember the major catastrophes that usually occur associated with the climate-oceanographic phenomenon “El Niño”. For example, on Christmas Day 2016, a new episode of “El Niño” on the South American coast of the equatorial Pacific Ocean unleashed disaster. Within a few months, in Peru and Ecuador alone, more than 1,000,000 people were seriously affected by the severe flooding that occurred.
Until the era of climate change, El Niño was a rare event, occurring once a decade or less. Even rarer was the La Niña phenomenon, the opposite of El Niño, which usually causes severe droughts.
But now we’ve had La Niña for 2 consecutive years and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is warning that there is a 70% chance of a third consecutive event in a few months.
If this happens, it will be the first time in history that there is a triple Ninja episode. The WCO estimates that the ensuing drought will threaten to starve 18 million people.
How is it possible?
It is worth understanding how such an extreme phenomenon occurs.
Oral tradition among the inhabitants of some coastal areas of Peru tells that in the 19th century some old South American fishermen realized that on very rare occasions a strange event occurred when the ocean waters reached the shores of Peru much warmer than usual.
It happened at Christmas, right at the beginning of the southern summer. The warm waters have changed their fishing significantly. New species of fish appear, while others, common under normal conditions, decline.
The weather has also changed. It’s raining where it never rained before. And the uncertain weather complicated their trips to the sea. A time of instability and uncertainty began, which made his work more dangerous than usual.
Fishermen called this phenomenon “El Niño” because, like baby Jesus, it was “born” on Christmas. Once started, it continued for many months.
From 1891, this phenomenon began to be documented in writing in a series of letters and chronicles.
It soon aroused the curiosity of scientists. After all, off the coast of Peru, El Niño is so strong that surface waters warm about 12 degrees above normal and sea levels rise about 50 centimeters. The waves then break up harbor areas and crash inland, destroying homes and infrastructure near the coast.
But in the 1970s, researchers realized that El Niño was not a local coastal phenomenon. In fact, it covers much of the Pacific Ocean.
It is a global event that involves huge variations in both ocean and atmospheric patterns. It is so powerful that it is changing the climate on a planetary scale and radically altering rainfall and temperature patterns in areas thousands of kilometers off the coast of Peru, causing extreme weather events across the planet. This probably represents the most impressive ocean-atmosphere-climate event on the planet.
And a girl
But this event is much more complicated. There is another opposite phase that begins with the arrival of much colder waters off the coast of Peru and a drop in sea level. Because this event usually begins on Christmas Day, which seems to be the opposite of El Niño, it is called “La Niña.”
Originating near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, El Niño and La Niña actually represent the 2 opposing phases of a global climate-oceanographic mega-event formed by a complex ocean and atmospheric pattern known as ENSO (El Niño Oscillation from the south).
ENSO describes the fluctuations of certain oceanographic and atmospheric variables in the Pacific Ocean. The most important are the sea surface temperature and the atmospheric pressure on the ocean water.
Generally speaking, the two parameters are related. In both, certain conditions must be met for El Niño, La Niña, or – which is the normal situation – neither to form.
In general, at normal levels of ocean surface temperatures, neither phenomenon develops. But when the sea surface temperature is above normal (i.e. in the warm phase of ENSO) an ‘El Niño’ can develop, while when it is below average (in the cold phase of ENSO) a ‘La Niña’ can develop .
Logically, “El Niño” and “La Niña” can never occur at the same time. But the normal thing is that they happen very rarely and that “El Niño” occurs more often than “La Niña”. Both events usually last most of the year, sometimes longer.
From time to time, the normal patterns of atmospheric pressure distribution over the equatorial Pacific Ocean are disturbed. This changes the regime of the southeast trade winds in the intertropical regions, which normally blow from east to west.
During El Niño, these trade winds weaken, causing them to carry less ocean surface water westward. Consequently, the eastern and central Pacific Ocean is warming much more than usual.
El Nino begins to form near Australia at the beginning of the year. The warm water slowly moves across the Pacific Ocean and reaches South America around Christmas. The huge mass of warm surface water transfers a lot of heat to the atmosphere. Warm, moist air rises from the sea surface.
During La Niña, the exact opposite happens. The trade winds strengthen and transport the surface waters to the west. So in the eastern Pacific, cold water rises from the ocean floor.
rains and hurricanes
In addition, the effects generated by El Niño and La Niña have a lot to do with the position of the jet stream (the strong winds that blow from west to east across the planet at an altitude of between 8 and 12 km). With El Niño, these winds move south, which changes the climate pattern of the entire Earth. Instead, when La Niña occurs, the jet stream moves north.
El Niño causes massive climate changes that affect the entire Pacific Ocean. For example, in Peru and Ecuador, the heat becomes unbearable and torrential rains cause serious flooding. On the contrary, it causes catastrophic droughts in Brazil, the southern United States, South Africa and Australia. In the Pacific, typhoons are increasing in frequency and strength.
With La Niña, drought is hitting Peru and Ecuador, while floods are punishing Australia and Indonesia. The frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic is increasing.
a new stage
Climate change creates a different scenario: the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans is higher, they have much more energy, and the impact of the atmospheric phenomena caused by “El Niño” and “La Niña” is significantly greater. Meteorologists are already talking about “Super Boys” and even “Mega Girls”.
Now the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is warning: The third consecutive episode of “La Niña” will most likely happen this year, a truly unusual event that has never happened before.
Let’s remember that before climate change, El Niño was a rare event, while La Niña was much rarer.
Now things have changed. The United Nations Meteorological Agency estimates that this year will see the first known triple Niña event. The event, which started in 2020, will most likely continue until 2023, generating a huge impact in much of the world, changing weather patterns on a global scale. Droughts are forecast in eastern Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, as well as in eastern Africa.
Worst drought in decades
The latest La Niña regional climate projections show we will have the worst drought in decades, affecting large areas such as the Horn of Africa, creating devastating famine and many millions of climate refugees.
A detailed study of ENSO climate events since 1901 shows that even where they originate has changed, moving from the eastern Pacific to the west, greatly increases its power.
This is because, as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, the waters of the western Pacific have warmed much faster than those of the central Pacific. ENSO events will be more frequent and above all more intense.
Super boys and girls
We’re entering the era of Superboys, and possibly Supergirls as well.
Many experts say these events will have profound economic and social consequences. At best, it will cost hundreds of billions.
We have entered a time of crisis. Prepare for what’s to come.
How to avoid human extinction: articles to understand what is happening to the planet
Under this title, we publish a series of articles that rigorously analyze the planetary crisis in its various dimensions, as well as explain how it will affect our lives and the price we will have to pay to escape the catastrophe that could end life on Earth.
We will offer a complete view of the problem, always in an informative key that will not only set out the latest knowledge in biology and ecology, but also the latest contributions from fields as diverse as neurobiology (trying to understand why we behave as we do we behave when we destroy our own environment) and even by the most scientific economics.
The goal of this series of articles is for everyone to be able to not only understand what is happening, but also, if they wish, to engage with the planet with the appropriate knowledge that allows them to go beyond mere aesthetic measures.
Because the global change we are experiencing is extremely complex, articles trying to explain it will be relatively complex. But it is worth the effort to understand the global change, as it is extremely serious.
To do this, we invite you to take a long and complicated, but also fun journey throughout this series of articles. Only after reading many of them will you be able to fully understand what we are experiencing as a species and act accordingly.
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