Scientists preparing for major El Niño — just politicians and pundits unready

The weather is preparing to go wild, and will wreak havoc and death around the globe later this year. An El Niño, a splurge of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, is coming. It will unleash floods in the Americas, while South-East Asia and Australia face drought. Yet little is being done to address these consequences.

An El Niño begins when warm water near Indonesia spreads eastwards and rises to the surface of the Pacific. The warm water carries rain with it, so El Niño takes rain from Asia and Australia and dumps it on the Americas…

The effects can be deadly. A big El Niño in 1997-98 killed 20,000 people and caused almost $97 billion of damage.

Meteorologists contacted by New Scientist all expect an El Niño at the end of this year. And it looks like a big one, says Wenju Cai of CSIRO, Australia’s national research agency, in Melbourne. The more heat in the Pacific, the bigger the El Niño, and right now, 150 metres below the surface, a ball of warm water is crossing that ocean. “It’s huge,” says Cai.

Yet official forecasts remain cautious. As recently as 5 May, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration only said the odds of an El Niño would exceed 50 per cent this year.

The reason I’m getting round to posting this is that NOAA’s El Niño/Southern Oscillation diagnostic discussion has climbed to 65% likelihood.

Most El Niño researchers say forecasters are being too conservative. “One thing I hear over and over again is ‘we do not want to create a panic’,” says Axel Timmermann. There is a reason: forecasting a big El Niño would cause a spike in food prices. “But it may be better to have this reaction at an early stage, when farmers can still adapt, rather than later.”

The good news is that El Niño is a known quantity. “We already know what happens when a big El Niño hits,” says Zafar Adeel of the United Nations University in Hamilton, Canada. That means vulnerable populations can be identified and emergency plans put in place. But not everywhere has a plan

Wild weather is coming in 2014/15 with storms and floods, droughts and wildfires expected from region to region; but little is being done to protect people on the front line. Australian meteorologists are among the best in the world. Their government will want to prepare by cutting taxes for corporate miners, their answer for everything. India, Pakistan face the potential of a weak monsoon season which harms domestic farming. The United States faces a range of weather from drought to floods – states like California have appropriate disaster plans while the Confederacy treats weather projections almost as much of a liberal plot as they do climate change.

Frankly, the last El Niño here in New Mexico in 1997/98 brought us a lot of useful precipitation. That was before recent years’ wildfires destroyed lots of forest and natural cover which would limit flooding. And we, too, have a governor who thinks the answer to every question is tax cuts for corporations.

The coming year could be longer than expected.

Thanks, Mike