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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 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.

  10. Bort

    There’s no evidence of this according to Maurice Newman.

  11. Andrew McIntosh

    I’m starting to realise that bad enough as it is knowing we’re fucked, it’s worse knowing just how fucked.

  12. KimbLee

    What are the effects all the way over on the west coast of Australia?

  13. Chris Hartwell

    Electric Lardyland @9 – 6000 years, actually. Sorry, I’ve argued with creationistists too many times to not know the numbers claimed.

  14. ghostwhowalksnz

    The recent CCRC sponsored expedition to Antartica didnt turn out so well. Didnt seem they checked current ice movements and got stuck in an hilarious example of climate change.

    Lets hope the ‘climate modelling evidence’ they cite is checked more thoroughly than that for the trip to Mawsons Bay.
    Other people are saying ” satellite-era sea surface temperature records indicate that El Niño events are responsible for the warming of sea surface temperatures ” not the other way around.
    The recent decline in large North Atlantic hurricanes indicates direct correlation to increased sea temperatures isnt so straightforward

  15. Spender

    Thanks Magdalena.
    From an Oz centric point of view I’m not grasping how the shifts in West Pacific Ocean surface temperature during warm La Nina, and cool El Nino relate to the warmer deep temperatures. By my reasoning from what’s stated in the article, warmer sea water = more rain and if the deep water is shaping up to be warmer throughout the coming El Nino (like in ’97) wouldn’t we expect our eastern sea board to see more rain? There must be a relationship between deep water temps and surface water temps I’m not getting.

  16. David Hand

    I’m definitely not an expert on the subject but it is widely stated that an El Nino event has warmer surface ocean temps off South America and is associated with warm Australian temperatures and drought in Australia.

    A La Nina event has warmer temperatures in the Western Pacific around Polynesia and northern Australia. This is associated with wetter weather in Australia.

    It’s important not to mix that up with Global warming. El Nino and La Nina have occurred irrespective of global temperatures. This is the mistake Flannery made when he made that ill considered “drought is the new climate” statement in 2007. Likewise, Bob Brown demanding the Coal producers pay for the Brisbane flood damage was blaming them for La Nina.

    It is those foolish activist driven statements by people claiming that the science is settled that gives sceptics so much ammo.

    The problem we all have in determining the impact of global warming is how temperatures fluctuate through these multi-year cycles. A return of El Nino would deliver very useful multi-cycle data.

  17. Glen

    That’s right David, you’re not an expert, as you repeatedly demonstrate.

    “The return of El Niño should provide solid statistical evidence that the world is warming”. Really? Where exactly have you been?

    And El Niño and La Niña don’t change with global warming? Again, really? Maybe try the recent international study led by Wenju Cai at CSIRO. Yeah, that’s right, expect about a doubling in severe El Niños (like 1998).

    And on warming and drought generally (minus El Niño), there’s ample learned studies (try IPCC AR5 WGII Ch 3). Unsurprisingly, evaporation increases nearly everywhere in a hotter world, and so does rainfall (aggregate rainfall equals aggregate evaporation), but by far more in places that are already wet. Ergo, not so wet places become drier, even if rainfall there stays about the same.

    Seriously David, why not just keep quiet until you actually take the trouble to learn something about the subject?

    …And for KimbLee@#13, extreme southwest WA rainfall correlates moderately strongly with ENSO; the rest of the state not so much: http://gergs.net/?attachment_id=46.

  18. David Hand


    Who are you? Coming on here and abusing someone who has expressed a view. Safely anonymous. And from your anonymity, telling me to shut up?

    I did not say that El Nino and La Nina don’t change with global warming. All I’m saying is that a return of El Nino would provide better data. It would help refine climate modelling. It might cast light on the temperature plateau that has occurred this century. It might deliver a new high, something you and the IPCC predict. That’s not such a difficult concept to grasp, is it?

    Civil discussion is not impossible, even here in the Crikey Crypt.

    Put your real name on your next post. I dare you.


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