Joe Bastardi / April 15, 2016

History in the Making — The El Niño/La Niña Couplet?

This is the Waterloo of the climate debate, in my opinion. The test is upon us.

This is the Waterloo of the climate debate, in my opinion. The test is upon us. The surge in global temperatures is occurring (as it was well telegraphed) and it’s directly related to El Niño. If we simply look at the multivariate ENSO index and then stack the NCEP global temps against it, we see this:

The dominance of warm events in the 1980s through the late 1990s led to an incremental climb where the fall offs prior to El Niños were not as great as the rise during them. That is intuitive since the El Niños were stronger than the responding La Niñas.

But since 2005 the two El Niños have had stronger responding La Niñas and, up until this El Niño, one can plainly see the result of a greater fall off after the El Niños of ‘06-'07 and '09-'10.

But now the latest Super Niño has spiked the global temperature, so the question is what kind of response lurks. It would have to be an historic couplet — the peak of this El Niño to the drop off behind it — to keep the trend going. We are seeing modeling suggest that. The SCRIPPS research institute model did a great job in the post '97-'98 El Niño of seeing that cold event, though it was not as cold as the warm event was warm!

Interestingly enough, it missed the last two La Niñas and with it the global temperature drop.



Its forecast for this event, if real, would be spectacular. Not only would it be the biggest El Niño to La Niñas transition, but the strongest La Niña on record.

Such an event would have huge weather/climate implications. For over a year now, I have been touting how warm this El Niño was going to be but also assuring folks there would be a response. This kind of historic response would result in a drop equal to or greater than the rise we saw with the El Niño temperature spike and would further the idea that the large scale drivers of nature are the dominant forcing mechanisms, not human activity (though, again, no one says it’s zero, but it may be so small it’s something that can not be detected in the “noise”). 

But another historical aspect is this: There are times the weather may have changed history. Examples include the storm that devastated the Spanish Armada,  the arrival of the Arctic high pressure at the Battle of the Bulge, and more recently Hurricane Sandy and the effect on the election. Over a year ago I said this El Niño would play a huge role in spiking global temperatures and, consequently, ramp up the climate change agenda to a fever pitch. (I would say threatening prosecutions for so-called climate deniers is getting it to a fever pitch, though this week in Washington, DC, Alex Epstein laid out the case for fossil fuels in five minutes as perfectly as possible, calling out Sen. Whitehouse. Watch here.)

One forecast I made was wrong — former VP Al Gore did not get into the presidential race, riding the global warming wave brought about by the ENSO spike. But given the actual movement of the global temperature and the tone of the people pushing the issue, I could not have made a better forecast. But think, dear reader, what if a year from now the La Niña coming on, the global temperature retreating and perhaps a clearer view of the idea that another response greater than the warming before was obvious. If one was paying attention to the simple relationship we are seeing, which appears fairly obvious, then one would say this is a non issue (I think it should be) politically. But, alas, that is not the world we live in.

In any case, here we see the NOAA CFSV2, which a month ago had people supporting the idea of the return of the permanent El Niño and runaway warming, believing it in spite of the physical realities that said it would be wrong (we knew and said so).

Here’s before:

Now it looks like this:

It’s heading toward the Super Niña response. Let me be clear: One never bases a forecast on a forecast. But the reality of the decadol oscillations, which, granted, are a bit warmer now than in the 50s when we were in a similar period, dictated the likelihood of a major response to this. And as a side note, this is the test I have been waiting for on a personal level to let me know where my ideas on this matter stand. But a possible historic flip, if it occurred a year earlier, may have led to an interesting twist in the climate debate in this election year. We will never know, and it’s likely, given what is now a debate that I think has very little to do with the actual results of the supposed debate, it would not change the political outcome anyway. In the end, all that matters to me is if the idea I am testing turns out right or wrong. I seriously doubt it would make a difference to others not supporting my premises if it was right anyway.

Joe Bastardi is chief forecaster at WeatherBELL Analytics, a meteorological consulting firm.

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