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Heatwave at equator town during el nino

Don't Call It a Comeback: El Niño Is Here to Show Us Tomorrow

We could be about to see what life is like on the wrong side of 1.5 degrees of warming, even if only temporarily.

By Ryan Towell |

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After months of "likely to occur" and "we could see" speculation from scientists, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made it official on June 8: El Niño is here.

But what does that mean and why should we all care?

As part of a natural cycle, El Niño occurs when ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific near the Equator warm 0.5 degrees or more Celsius above the long-term average. That might not seem like a lot, but it (and the opposite La Niña condition) can and often does have far-reaching, global impacts.

El Niño years tend to be warmer-than-average globally speaking. And that’s on top of the warming (some 1.1 degrees Celsius of it) that’s already resulted from the climate crisis. We could be looking at record-breaking warm years this year and next. And what’s more, we could cross into territory that we’ve been dreading.

Tropical Pacific Sea Surface Temperatures – courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Graphic: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

There is some risk that the Earth’s average global temperature will exceed – even if only temporarily – the 1.5-degree Celsius warming threshold that we’ve all been talking so much about. And it could happen as soon as the next 12 months. You’ll likely remember that scientists have been warning us that crossing that threshold and further incremental warming from there brings us closer and closer to potentially irreversible impacts.

Although warming above the 1.5C threshold in an El Niño year(s) is not quite the same as crossing the threshold on a more continuous basis, the impacts will still be widely felt. It may provide an unwanted preview of what’s to come if we allow human-induced warming to continue and the worst impacts of the climate crisis to unfold.

From changes in precipitation patterns – including rainy or dry seasons – that could deluge some areas while producing flash drought in others. To increased likelihood of extreme heat and the many dangers that come with it. Changes in vector-borne diseases transmitted by mosquitos, ticks, and fleas resulting from temperature and precipitation fluctuations are also on the table. These things are always possible when dealing with an intense El Niño, but the added warming from the climate crisis has now stacked the deck for more extreme outcomes. And researchers continue to study how continued global warming may impact the strength and frequency of future El Niño/ La Niña events. Some studies suggest both may increase.

While there’s not much we can do to change naturally-occurring El Niño/La Niña cycles, there is a huge amount we can do to limit the warming of our planet from human activity – primarily burning fossil fuels. The good news is that the tools we need to leave dirty fossil fuels behind and transition to clean energy are in our hands today. Nature is telling us it's time to act. It's time for us to listen.