El Nino Strikes Back! Again! (Part II – How strong or intense will this El Nino be?)

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Adam Wright
(Thursday) 5.8.14

How strong or intense will this El Nino be?

That is a pretty good question, you can see on the model comparison above that computers almost never agree with one another…however, compared to the short-lived El Nino circulation that developed in 2012, the current models are much more in alignment. In fact almost all of these various climate models are showing a gradual shift to El Nino, with only a handful sticking with ENSO-Neutral and even those are trending to the warmer side.

Even with their limitations both types of computer models…The Statistical Models, (which rely heavily on past cycles to create guidance), and the Dynamic Models, (which base their forecasts on the current conditions and the long-term effects that these latest trends could cause), come up with a general consensus that this upcoming winter we will see a moderate El Nino episode…which in terms of temperature change means the pockets of abnormally warm water could range anywhere from 0.5 to 1.8 degrees (Celsius) above what is considered “average”.

I know, I know…(insert sarcastic tone here) “Wow a full 0.5-degree difference, lets sound the alarm!”

The thing that we often overlook when we see these “small numbers” of Sea-Surface and Sub-Sea-Surface temperature anomalies is SCALE. Think about how long it would take you to warm up a gallon of water to say 80 degrees…if you have a decent stove probably not that long, but it does require a level of energy to do so.

When we are talking about these various ocean temperatures being raised 0.5 to a 1.8 degrees we are now talking about warming millions of square miles of ocean surface (and an even more ridiculous number of cubic miles when you take into account the warming that occurs below the ocean surface.)

All of this warm water is basically stored up energy that is going to need to be released and redistributed throughout the world (remember from physics that nature arbors a vacuum and is always trying to balance things out)…and the more heat you have, the more intense and dynamic the equalization process is going to be.

Ok got a little off topic there…we were talking about how intense this El Nino may become…and the 0.5 to 1.8 degree lift is respectable…still not as strong as some of the really intense episodes in the past (like the ones that occurred in 1982-83, 1987-88, 1997-98…which had a rise of nearly 2.2-2.4 degrees), but not a weak blip either.

In fact a big factor that may come into play is the duration of this particular El Nino. Sometimes, like the El Nino we saw in 2009 (or the weaker warm streak we had in 2012), they only last a few seasons…but this one has a lot of warm water deep under the surface, which could extend its lifespan well into 2015. So while it might not be as strong as some of our past El Ninos it may make up for it by how long it sticks around. Personally I would rather see a long strung out episode that produces multiple swells than a short-intense one that only really produces a few extra-large swells. You can see on the chart below that some of the areas, particularly off the coast of Peru and the equatorial waters south of Mexico/Southern California have been on a warming trend that started in the spring and has just continued to strengthen.

This is a little different than the last El Nino we had in 2009 in the sense that there is a lot more warm water setting up off the South America coast, this along with the deeper levels of warm water will provide a lot more energy to help sustain this new El Nino, at least on this eastern side of the Pacific.

PAGE 3 – How is this going to affect the surf in the Pacific (in particular for the West Coast)?

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