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Apr 28, 2014

The ‘boy child’ is back: more bushfires, droughts coming our way

The weather pattern known as El Nino is heading for Australia, and with it will come warmer temperatures and less rainfall. Meteorologist Magdalene Roze presents a grim forecast.

It looks like the biggest weather event of the year is unfolding as we speak.

After waving hasta la vista to the flooding rains of La Nina from 2010- 2012, we’ve been ENSO (El Nino-Southern Oscillation) climate-neutral for almost two years. But that’s about to change, with all climate models surveyed by the Bureau of Meteorology now predicting her fearsome brother El Nino will arrive this year. Six out of the seven models forecast the arrival as early as July.

El Nino translates to “boy child” or “Christ child” in Spanish, but this kid packs a big weather punch around the world, with Australia usually copping a big blow.

The El Nino-Southern Oscillation is a climate pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean that occurs roughly every three to eight years and causes major shifts in the weather around the globe. In its positive phase, La Nina, sea surface temperatures increase in the western tropical Pacific Ocean off the coast of north-east Australia, which is linked to increased rainfall over eastern Australia. In 2010 and 2011, La Nina delivered Australia’s wettest 24-month period on record.

The flip side of ENSO is the negative phase El Nino, where sea surface temperatures are warmer than average in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. This is usually accompanied by cooler waters off Australia’s northeast coast and a subsequent decrease in moisture, which typically brings below-average rainfall, hotter conditions and a longer and more severe bushfire season to eastern Australia.

Around two-thirds of El Ninos in the last century have resulted in major droughts across a large part of our country, with eight out of the 10 warmest years on record occurring during El Nino years.

While it’s too early to predict this upcoming El Nino’s strength, current observations suggest that it could be a doozy, with sea temperatures deep below the ocean’s surface a lot warmer than usual. The last time we saw this kind of temperature anomaly was in 1997, during the strongest El Nino ever recorded. The global effects of this event were devastating, with record flooding in Chile, an extensive smog cloud over Indonesia, marlin caught off the coast of Washington (normally found in the warm waters of Mexico) and parts of Victoria recording very little rainfall. The impacts cost over $30 billion, and the event claimed 23,000 lives.

Someone needs to call That’s Incredible! (remember that ’80s show?!), because I’ve almost reached the end without mentioning global warming. Research published by scientists from the University of New South Wales shows that while we currently experience a strong El Nino event every 20 years, this is expected to double to one in every 10 years as the planet warms. So as global temperatures rise, it looks like El Nino will arrive more often to give those heatwaves an extra boost.

It’s worth noting, however, that 2013 was Australia’s hottest year on record, despite there being no El Nino. I’ve used this analogy before, but Australia breaking those heat records in 2013 during this ENSO-neutral phase is like a racing car driver achieving a record on a wet track with poor tyres. El Nino actually tilts the odds towards extreme weather such as heatwaves, which is what makes this latest forecast so worrisome.

If we’re experiencing our hottest year on record and earlier bushfire seasons when we’re in ENSO-neutral, how severe will it get when El Nino clicks into drive?

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19 comments

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19 thoughts on “The ‘boy child’ is back: more bushfires, droughts coming our way

  1. Glen

    There’s a nice animation of that deep water “a lot warmer than usual” here: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/enso_update/wkxzteq.shtml.

    The thermocline is still, well, inclined … I mean the right way, towards us. Maybe this thing will fizz Magdalena? Still a chance I would have thought, if a shrinking one.

  2. Boerwar

    ENSO has recently, and quite rapidly, moved from a long way minus (El Nino terriotry) to neutral.

    I am not sure whether this change is sufficient to shift the models’ POV.

  3. Electric Lardyland

    Anyone want to take a long term bet, that five or ten years after the next vicious El Nino system, climate change deniers will be starting their “no the world isn’t warming” models from the peak of that El Nino.

  4. Liamj

    If we had competent government & industry they’d be calmly implementing appropriate policy, eg. finalising drought assistance & transition funding arrangements, lowering stocking densities on rangelands, mandating minimum fodder stockpiles, reducing groundwater mining & deforestation. Instead they’ll play dumb right up until they come to bludge off the taxpayer. Denial by fossil fools is the entitlement we can no longer afford.

  5. David Hand

    The return of El Nino should provide solid statistical evidence that the world is warming. I hope it’s this year.

    If the pause in global temperature rises ends it will be easier to mobilise the global community to take action.

  6. AR

    LecyLardy – that’s assuming that there are still any deniers visible. Or extant.
    Not that the purveyors of doubt won’t still be taking their sly shilling from the Master, any master’s, table.

  7. fractious

    Boerwar #3
    Despite that, BoM is stating that *all* the models it monitors are suggesting the ENSO is heading into negative territory – the recent SOI move to neutral may turn out to be a blip.

    Whether we get a major El Nino or not, the fact Aus had its hottest year on record last year during a relatively neutral spell doesn’t bode well.

    Doubtless someone will be along shortly to bring us the “good news” that there have been “no increases in the mean global temperature” since last Wednesday (or something equally asinine). Still, who needs the climate when you’ve got inDirect inAction and part shares in 58 fabulous new warplanes, the glinting from whose wings will penetrate even the most apocalyptic bushfire smoke? And let’s not ignore the benefits of a major El Nino – the fact is it will Stop The Boast (sorry, Boats) because no-one with half a mind to their own prospects will even consider coming to a place that’s either desert or on fire.

  8. Electric Lardyland

    Oh I don’t know AR? I mean, 155 years after Darwin published On The Origin Of Species, there has been an awful lot of evidence gathered to support the concept of evolution; yet 45% of Americans apparently still believe that God created the world around 10,000 years ago. So I think that no matter how strong the scientific evidence, there will always be a certain amount of people who will proudly ignore the obvious. I suspect this depends on what sort of benefits come to the individual, for believing the largely unbelievable.

  9. beachcomber

    It won’t happen. Tony Abbott doesn’t believe in science.