Category Archives: Pacific Ocean

May days’ heat sets up record El Niño

 

Flooding in California during the “El Niño of the century” in 1998 Image: Dave Gatley/FEMA via Wikimedia Commons
Flooding in California during the “El Niño of the century” in 1998
Image: Dave Gatley/FEMA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists believe that soaring global temperatures during an unusually hot month of May may have created the ideal conditions to provide a warm welcome for an El Niño weather phenomenon that will break records

LONDON, 20 June, 2014 − Last month was the third warmest May since NASA satellites began taking the temperature of the planet 35 years ago, and was also the warmest May that did not fall within an El Niño Pacific warming event – which could mean a record-breaking appearance this year by the fearsome “Child”.

Scientists in the US says the global average was 0.33°C warmer than the seasonal norms for the month. The warmest May ever was in 1998 during the “El Niño of the century”, when global average temperatures rose by 0.56°C, and the second warmest at 0.45°C was in 2010, another El Niño year.

So if indications are correct that an El Niño event is taking shape in the Pacific right now off the equatorial coast of South America, then it could become a record-setter − even if it isn’t a very spectacular event − just because it will get a warmer start, according to John Christy, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, US.

Temperature patterns

An El Niño (Spanish for The Child, because it was first observed by Peruvian fishermen around Christmas) is a shift in the temperature patterns of the Pacific, as a blister of equatorial ocean heat moves eastwards. It is a natural cyclic event that tends to reverse the prevailing Pacific weather patterns, often damagingly, and is not connected with climate change  although its effects could be made worse by climate change.

“The long-term baseline temperature is about three tenths of a degree warmer than it was when the big El Niño of 1997-1998 began, and that event set the one month record,” Christy said. “With the baseline so much warmer, this upcoming El Niño won’t have very far to go to break that 0.66°C record. That isn’t to say it will, but even an average-sized warming event will have a chance to get close to that level.”

Meanwhile, according to new research in Nature Climate Change, people in the northern hemisphere can also expect warmer temperatures in autumn and winter – in spite of last winter’s spectacular ice storms in the US north-east that shut down cities from the Atlantic to the Midwest, and where − to the joy of headline writers − the town of Hell in Michigan froze over.

Extremes of cold

The report’s author, James Screen, Natural Environment Research Council research fellow at the University of Exeter, UK, says that even though there will be extremes of cold, these will be less frequent and less severe. The Arctic is warming, and a study of autumn and winter temperature variations shows that variability in the temperate zone overall has in fact decreased.

“Autumn and winter days are becoming warmer on average, and less variable from day to day,” Dr Screen said. “Both factors reduce the chance of extremely cold days.

“Cold days tend to occur when the wind is blowing from the north, bringing Arctic air south into the mid-latitudes. Because the Arctic air is warming so rapidly, these cold days are now less cold than they were in the past.” – Climate News Network

Trade winds draw ‘missing’ warmth to deep ocean

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The trade winds make their mark on Hawaii - and they may explain where the "missing" warmth has gone Image: Richard B. Mieremet, Senior Advisor, NOAA OSDIA

The trade winds make their mark on Hawaii – and they may explain where the “missing” warmth has gone
Image: Richard B. Mieremet, Senior Advisor, NOAA OSDIA

By Tim Radford

Contrary to some reports, global warming hasn’t stopped or slowed at all, new research suggests. The trade winds have simply carried the heat into the Pacific Ocean – temporarily.

LONDON, 10 February – Australian and US scientists think they know where a lot of global warming has been concentrated: it has been tucked away below the surface waters of the western Pacific Ocean. And the agency that took the heat out of the atmosphere and transferred it into a liquid form could have been the equatorial trade winds.

Matthew England from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that a dramatic acceleration in the winds has drawn heat from the atmosphere and transferred it to the ocean: cooler waters have risen to the surface to mask the transaction.

Climate sceptics – and some climate scientists – talk about a slowdown, or a pause, or a hiatus in global warming. In fact, temperatures have gone on rising and 13 of the 14 warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 2000. But the rate of rise in global average temperatures since 2000 has not been as fast as the rate during the 1980s and 1990s.

Since greenhouse gas levels have continued to rise, and since scientists are sure of their atmospheric physics, then there was some “missing heat” to be accounted for.

Researchers have variously suggested that a puzzling increase in deep ocean temperatures could be one explanation or that perhaps the unevenness of temperature measurements around the planet might be another. But both suggestions were hypotheses: nobody had an answer that could be tested by any kind of experiment.

Slower rate

Professor England and colleagues worked with observed winds, surface air temperatures, and a set of ocean climate models to calculate what may have happened.

The global warming story has always been one of fits and starts: a warming that ought to have been observed 70 years ago stalled between 1940 and 1970, and when it resumed, did so in fits and starts. The overall trend continued upward, but the rate of rise slowed noticeably during the last decade.

Ocean circulation loops are driven by winds, and speed up as the winds intensify. Cool waters well up, warm waters descend. And intensify is just what the trade winds have done. They began strengthening during the 1990s, a process which continues today. Once the researchers added the trade winds to their calculations, the global average temperatures looked very like the observations during the hiatus.

They also found that four-fifths of the surface temperature cooling occurred after 2000, which confirmed that wind acceleration was the key contributor.

“Scientists have long suspected that extra ocean heat uptake has slowed the rise of global average temperatures, but the mechanism behind the hiatus remained unclear”, said Professor England.

Rapid rise on the way

“But the heat uptake is by no means permanent: when the trade wind strength returns to normal – as it inevitably will – our research suggests heat will quickly accumulate in the atmosphere. So global temperatures look set to rise rapidly out of the hiatus, returning to the levels projected within as little as a decade.”

The same mechanism could explain the slowdown between 1940 and 1970. In 1938, the British scientist G S Callendar argued that rising carbon dioxide levels should mean global warming but the evidence proved elusive, perhaps because the trade winds accelerated during those decades.

Richard Allan, professor of climate science at the University of Reading in the UK, said the current slowdown was only a temporary reprieve.

“Measurements from satellites and ocean buoys show that the planet is absorbing more heat than it is radiating out to space and the heat is building up in the oceans.

“This new research suggests that when the trade winds weaken again, the planet can expect rapid warming of the surface to resume, as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise.” – Climate News Network