El Niño Threatens Unparalleled Heatwaves
By Robert Hunziker
Can the world handle a climate that exceeds the far-reaching excesses of 2022 when the entire world turned upside down with unprecedented flooding, fires, and drought?
NOAA and climate researchers in Germany and China believe an El Niño, starting in 2023-24, is in the works. El Niños equate to more heat throughout the planet.
Buckle-up! El Niño could increase ocean temps by 2°-to-4° Fahrenheit, impacting the planet’s entire climate system, and it’s coming on top of the whackiest, hottest, boldest climate year (2022) in recorded history as paradoxically La Niña in 2022, which is supposed to help cool the planet, didn’t help!
In 2022, the planet set heat records, drying up major commercial waterways (Po, Danube, Rhine), extreme severe drought necessitated water delivery by trucks (France, Italy, Chile), fires burned down entire towns (California), as record heat killed thousands (India). None of 2022’s record-setting fires, heat, floods, and droughts were normal. In fact, it was especially abnormal, happening in the face of a La Niña, which is part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern when the sea surface temperature across the eastern equatorial part of the central Pacific Ocean is typically lower (cooler) by 3° to 5 °C (5.4°to 9°F). But a cool La Niña didn’t do the job!
Now an El Niño (warmer-to-hotter) event is on tap for some time in 2023/24, likely lasting 2-5 years. The ramifications will be worldwide. According to Prof Bill McGuire, at University College London, UK: “When [El Niño arrives], the extreme weather that has rampaged across our planet in 2021 and 2022 will pale into insignificance.” (Source: El Niño Is Coming—and the World Isn’t Prepared. Wired, Dec. 24, 2022)
El Niño could very easily provide a preview of life at 1.5C, which is widely considered a line-in-the-sand not to be crossed before triggering tipping points that’ll far exceed the challenges of a record-setting hot year in 2022. The last El Niño in 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, but not surprisingly, the oceans ever since then have accumulated much more heat over these past 6 years, now with enough to make 2016 look tame. This next El Niño could be a gut-punch, and the world is not prepared, not even close.
NOAA believes the odds favor El Niño starting this year. Researchers in Germany and China have suggested it could be “a strong one.” As a result, climate scientists are worried about a more-powerful-than-ever strain on sensitive ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon rainforest, especially as they are already in a fragile state.
The risks are big: “It’s very likely that the next big El Niño could take us over 1.5C,” according to Prof Adam Scaife, the head of long-range prediction at the UK Met Office. “The probability of having the first year at 1.5C in the next five-year period is now about 50:50… We know that under climate change, the impacts of El Niño events are going to get stronger, and you have to add that to the effects of climate change itself, which is growing all the time. You put those two things together, and we are likely to see unprecedented heatwaves during the next El Niño.” (Source: Warming of Unprecedented Heatwaves as El Niño Set to Return in 2023, The Guardian, March 2021).
A strong El Niño, similar to 2015/16, could bring on permanent damage to ecosystems. Back in 2015-16, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its most devastating coral bleaching ever as marine heat killed more than one-half of the corals in the northern portion of the reef. Moreover, even in the La Niña (cooling) year of 2022 it was still hot enough to cause massive bleaching.
Meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest is very near a critical tipping point of no return as it struggles with global warming and deforestation. The last El Niño killed 2,500,000,000 trees, which temporarily turned one of the world’s largest carbon-capturing ecosystems into a source of carbon emissions. Such an unfolding tragedy requires no preamble to understand the enormity of risks when tampering with the planet’s most significant hydrosphere, releasing billions of tons of moisture into the atmosphere with key worldwide impact.
That same 2015-16 El Niño brought severe drought to Indonesia with massive wildfires in forests, emitting vast stores of carbon into the atmosphere. And the same El Niño was behind a massive bout of melting in Antarctica in January 2016 as a sheet of meltwater formed across the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf of Antarctica.
Yet, it cannot be emphasized enough that 2015-16 was merely a warning of what was to come with increasing levels of greenhouse gases like CO2 and Ch4 and N2O. As of February 2023, according to the US EPA: “Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have significantly increased since 1900. Since 1970, CO2 emissions have increased by about 90%, with emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributing about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase from 1970 to 2011. Agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes have been the second largest contributors.”
And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Greenhouse gases continued to increase rapidly in 2022… Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide rise further into uncharted levels… 2022 was the 11th consecutive year CO2 increased by more than 2 ppm, the highest sustained rate of CO2 increases in the 65 years since monitoring began. Prior to 2013, three consecutive years of CO2 growth of 2 ppm or more had never been recorded.” (Source: US EPA, April 5, 2023)
Clearly, greenhouse gases are out of control more so than at any other time in human history in the face of a climate system that’s unmistakably burping, coughing, wheezing, burning, and dying. The great iconic masterpieces of nature like the Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef are sickly and turning against nature. This is not normal.
All of which leads to a distinct possibility of an upcoming extreme topsy-turvy climate scenario in the face of a very weak, in fact feeble-minded, discordant world leadership, which is a toxic combination that is certain to be fatal, as dire circumstances require unity of purpose, not discord.
Meanwhile, as the oceans absorb increasing levels of planetary heat, there’s evidence that El Niños are starting to affect El Niños leading to Super El Niños. “Over the last 40 years or so, the world has seen some of the strongest El Niños on record.” (Source: A Looming El Niño Could Give Us a Preview of Life at 1.5C on Warming, Grist, Feb. 24, 2023).
As greenhouse gases like CO2 emitted by cars, trains, planes, and industry increase by the year, Super El Niños will start to affect Super El Niños, bringing in its wake Super-Super El Niños with devastating consequences never considered possible. Then what?
There is only one logical solution to hopefully counter this fierce impending risk. The world must convert to renewables and initiate carbon removal techniques as quickly as possible, but what are the prospects remains an open question? What on earth can discordant leadership accomplish?
Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and published in over 50 journals, magazines and sites worldwide.