As ocean surface temperatures soar to record highs, the World Meteorological Organization said Wednesday it expects a shift toward El Nino by this fall, which could shake up weather patterns and trigger more extreme weather events in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
Forecasters expect the temporary El Nino pattern to alter rainfall patterns, elevate average air temperatures and contribute to more intense storm systems. El Nino, a natural and temporary climate anomaly that is not human-caused, will be layered on top of climate warming. The air and ocean temperatures are both rising.
Daily sea surface temperatures last month reached highs not seen in at least four decades of recordkeeping, according to a data visualization from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer.
” “As the surface temperature rises, it adds fuel to the air, and this fuel is moisture and heat,” John Abraham, professor at University of St. Thomas and director of the program in engineering, said. “It intensifies weather patterns. It means the weather becomes more extreme.”
The combination of El Nino and the long-term trend of global warming could produce new record-setting global temperatures and exacerbate the impacts of climate change.
For the past three years, the globe has been locked in a La Nina trend, which has offered something of a reprieve. The WMO forecasters say the trend is now neutral, but forecast that there is an 80% chance that El Nino will take hold by September.
“We just had the eight warmest years on record, even though we had a cooling La Nina for the past three years and this acted as a temporary brake on global temperature increase,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement.
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center issued a El Nino Watch and made a similar prediction to that of WMO.
El Nino can bring cool and wet conditions to the south of the U.S., while warm weather is experienced in northern states. Parts of the U.S., such as the Ohio River Valley, could see a prolonged dry stretch as El Nino takes hold.
Ocean temperatures are determined by analyzing data from a network of monitoring buoys and robotic devices that track temperatures as they travel up and down within the ocean. The devices transmit data to the researchers, who can then use it to predict weather.
The rising sea surface temperatures are an indication of the transition to El Nino.
“They’re blowing the doors off the prior record,” Abraham said of those measurements. “The warming of the ocean is the most important thing that determines weather.
The Oceans absorb the majority of energy caused by human activity. More than 90% of the heat imbalance in Earth’s energy inventory ends up in the oceans, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Ocean surface temperatures tend to fluctuate and are subject to shorter-term trends and natural climate variability like El Nino. Sarah Purkey is an assistant professor of Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. She said that much of this heat was contained below the surface of the ocean.
“Ocean temperature is the key metric to consider when assessing climate change, Purkey explained. “It’s at the core of this global imbalance,” Purkey added. Below the surface, “we’ve had this really steady warming signal.”
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