6 Things We Get Wrong About El Nino

November 19, 2015 09:10 AM

El Niño gets credited or blamed on a wide variety of weather, according to Francesco Fiondella, a science writer at Columbia University.

Can a single climate phenomenon really cause all these events?” he asks. “What exactly is this important climate phenomenon, and why should society care about it?”

El Niño is simple enough to define – it’s when the eastern and central Pacific Ocean waters enter a warming pattern near the equator. Even though waters only end up a small percentage warmer, it creates a climatic domino effect that alters weather the world over.

But does El Niño really do everything people say it can do? Fiondella looks at several misconceptions about this weather phenomenon.

1.Does El Niño cause more weather disasters? Fiondella argues that this is not necessarily the case on a worldwide basis. But it does create a few predictable patterns that help climatologists do a better job of improving weather preparedness and issue early warnings in times of severe weather.

2.Does El Niño significantly affect the entire climate of Earth? Actually, Fiondella says, only 25% of the world’s land surface is affected during any particular season during an event.

3.Does El Niño’s effects last the entire time it is active? Most regions are only affected for a single season. “For example, the current El Niño may cause the southern U.S. to get wetter-than-normal conditions in the December-to-March season, but Kenyans may see wetter-than-normal conditions between October and December,” Fiondella says.

4.Does El Niño only have bad outcomes? Droughts in some areas and flooding in others tend to dominate the headlines, but Fiondella says El Niño has some more positive outcomes, too. For example, hurricane activity is generally reduced, South America has favorable crop weather in spring and summer, and the northern U.S. gets a break on its heating bills from warmer-than-average weather.

5.Should we worry more when El Niño events occur vs. La Niña? “Not necessarily,” Fiondella says. “They each come with their own set of features and risks.” The two amplify wet and dry patterns in different regions in the world. El Niño often sparks drought in tropical land areas, while La Niña droughts typically target the mid-latitudes instead.

6.Is El Niño caused by or related to climate change? It’s too early to tell whether global climate change affects the characteristics of El Niño or La Niña, Fiondella says. However, these events are normal and have likely occurred for several millions of years, he says.

Fiondella has some additional musings about El Niño on the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Click here to read more.

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