Weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean are increasing with climate change
The Pacific is a juggernaut. It is the largest ocean on our planet, almost twice the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Its vast area, exposure to trade winds, and range of temperatures make it incredibly dynamic. All of these factors contribute to creating the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a weather pattern that affects seasonal rainfall, heat, storms, and more around the world.
El Niño has three phases: El Niño and La Niña, which can increase the likelihood of extreme weather from the Philippines to Hawaii to Peru — and the neutral phase we typically experience. El Niño is currently underway and is expected to continue. Stay strong until winter. This is accompanied by a plethora of weather patterns such as worsening heat waves in the northern United States and Canada, increased risk of flooding in the southern and southeastern United States, delayed rainy seasons, and even drought in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. This applies to the El Niño period, which is expected to be strong, but not particularly extreme. But as the Pacific Ocean warms due to human-induced climate change and temperature gradients widen across the ocean, scientists warn that El Niño and La Niña periods are becoming longer, more extreme and more frequent.
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In one of the recent studies published in the journal Nature ReviewsResearchers looked at different climate models to see how ENSO has changed over the past century, and how it could change in the coming years. While El Niño and La Niña typically last nine to 12 months, the vast majority of models predict that we will see them stretch over several years. “In the 20th century, there was one extreme El Niño event every 20 years,” says Wengo Cai, senior research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, and lead author of the report. Nature Reviews paper. “But in the future, in the 21st century on average, we will see something like one extreme event every 10 years, so it’s doubling.”
Longer and more intense periods of El Niño and La Niña mean that the risks of extreme weather – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts – are increasing for most countries located in or bordering the Pacific Ocean. For example, El Niño pulls warm water to the east, so if tropical circulations (storms that tend to move west) develop, they will have more time and distance to cover until they reach land. “As they travel in the ocean, these tropical cyclones become active because of the heat and moisture coming from the ocean,” Kay says. By the time it reaches countries in the West like North Korea, South Korea, Japan or China, it could be even more catastrophic than the tropical storms those places experience today.
Since “global warming makes extreme events more extreme” such as severe storms and weather patterns, Kay says, it’s a “double whammy.”
But even the less dramatic effects of ENSO could amount to damage. Fluctuations in ocean temperatures brought by ENSO, for example, can be so dramatic and rapid that marine life like coral reefs cannot adapt to them, says John Burns, a marine and data scientist at the University of Hawaii. “All of this could exacerbate coral bleaching,” which has already been documented on Hawaiian coral reefs.
Because organisms and systems are intrinsically interconnected, this has resounding implications for a number of species and industries. Burns has created techniques that can reconstruct aquatic habitats, and has used those models to study the effects of coral loss. “We mathematically linked how these habitats affect the abundance of coral reef fish, which are one of the major sources of protein in the global economy, especially in Southeast Asia,” he says. So not only will climate change and ENSO harm fish and fisheries, but it could also have ripple effects on tourism, as well as local and global economies.
In a recent report in the magazine SciencesClimate researchers from Dartmouth College estimate that extreme El Niño events that occurred in 1982 and 1997 alone cost the global economy about $4 trillion to $6 trillion, respectively, in the following years. The authors also estimate that the current El Niño period could cause $3 trillion in losses over the next five years. Kay says the damage is not limited to buildings and infrastructure, but includes social pillars that people may not consider, such as jobs, farmland, food stocks and individual health. As a result, some countries and organizations are taking a proactive approach against El Niño. Peru, for example, is allocating more than $1 billion to prevent and contain the carnage it would bring.
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But there is time to bring ENSO and the Pacific Ocean back into balance little by little. While it can sometimes be useful to look at these global changes broadly, it is important to “realize that the solutions will be very local,” Burns says. He explains that even if we predict general trends, understanding how specific habitats are affected and possible solutions requires local and local wisdom and knowledge.
“It’s a shame that we’re dismayed by these widespread changes and come to the conclusion that there’s nothing we can do,” Burns says. “It’s definitely not that simple…and we need place-based strategies to protect these systems.”