Extreme El Niño events could double over next 100 years, climate experts warn

During an extreme event, countries in the western Pacific experienced devastating droughts and wild fires

A A A

Extreme versions of the El Niño weather phenomenon – which can bring torrential rains and flooding to one part of the world and catastrophic drought and forest fires to another – could double in frequency in the next 100 years because of global warming, a study has found.

Scientists have for the first time detected a possible link between increasing global temperatures and the more extreme versions of El Niño, when rainfall patterns across the Pacific shift dramatically from their normal range.

They believe that the frequency of extreme conditions could double, increasing their occurrence from about once every 20 years to once every 10 years.

The last extreme  El Niño occurred in 1997-1998 and killed as many as 23,000 people worldwide, causing damage estimated at between £22bn and £28bn.

El Niño, which means “the boy”, or more precisely “Christ child” because it was first noticed by Peruvian fishermen to coincide with Christmas, causes intense rainfall in the eastern equatorial Pacific, where cold, dry conditions normally prevail, and intense drought in the western equatorial regions of the Pacific, including Australia.

Until now, climate scientists were unable to establish any association between the size and frequency of El Niño and rising  global temperatures.

“The question of how global warming will change the frequency of extreme El Niño events has challenged scientists for more than 20 years,” said Mike McPhaden of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a co-author of the study.

 

However, findings based on analysing 20 different computer models of the global climate have now found a statistically significant link between global temperatures and El Niño.

“During an extreme  El Niño event countries in the western Pacific, such as Australia and Indonesia, experienced devastating droughts and wild fires, while catastrophic floods occurred in the eastern equatorial region of Ecuador and northern Peru,” said Dr Wenju Cai of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Our research, based on  20 climate models, found a doubling of events from the present day through the next century in response to greenhouse warming,” he added.

A change in the direction of ocean currents in the equatorial Pacific is a signature feature of El Niño, where changes to the sea surface are intimately linked with variations in wind patterns and rainfall distribution.

Extreme events develop differently from standard  El Niños, which first  appear as changes in the  western Pacific.

Extreme El Niños occur when the sea surface temperatures exceed 28C in the normally cold waters of the eastern equatorial Pacific, where the climate is  usually dry.

Extreme events occurred in 1982-83 and 1997-98, which caused massive reorganisation of global rainfall patters.

In 1982 for instance, a heatwave in Australia led to bushfires which killed 75 people, while the 1997-98 El Niño caused torrential rain and floods in America.

The study found that the  20 computer models of the global climate can simulate how extreme El Niños can increase in frequency as global temperatures rise, making it more likely that sea surface temperatures will reach 28C in the Eastern Pacific.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas