One of the most intense El Niños ever observed could be forming (2024)

A fast-forming and strengthening El Niño climate pattern could peak this winter as one of the most intense ever observed, according to an experimental forecast released Tuesday. The new prediction system suggested it could reach top-tier “super” El Niño strength, a level that in the past has unleashed deadly fires, drought, heat waves, floods and mudslides around the world.

This time, El Niño is developing alongside an unprecedented surge in global temperatures that scientists say has increased the likelihood of brutal heat waves and deadly floods of the kind seen in recent weeks.

Will that make El Niño’s typical extremes even more dramatic in the winter?

“My answer would be — maybe,” said David DeWitt, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.


Whether — and where — this El Niño might produce new weather extremes is difficult to pin down months in advance, scientists said. That’s because research has not clarified any link between human-caused planetary warming and El Niño, or its counterpart, La Niña. Variation among El Niño events also makes weather impacts difficult to predict.

There are signs that rising temperatures could increase El Niño’s capacity to trigger heavy rainfall in some parts of the globe, though, said Yuko Okumura, a research scientist at the University of Texas.

“It’s likely the impact might be stronger,” Okumura said.

An intense El Niño forecast

Climate models have for months suggested the potential for an intense El Niño that could trigger floods, heat waves and droughts.

The phenomenon is marked by a surge of warmth in surface waters along the equator in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. The warmer those waters become, and the more they couple with west-to-east flowing winds over the Pacific, the stronger the El Niño and its influence on global weather.


NOAA scientists declared the pattern’s arrival in June, by which point there were already signs of unusual warming in the Pacific and other waters around the world.

As global ocean and surface temperatures surged into record territory in the months that followed, official predictions of El Niño’s intensity have solidified. NOAA’s climate forecasters this month estimated the chance of a strong El Niño pattern by winter in the Northern Hemisphere at 71 percent. Its current strength is moderate.

A forecast that the National Center for Atmospheric Research issued Tuesday was even more bullish, using a new prediction system to prognosticate that the coming winter could bring a super El Niño, with strength rivaling the historic El Niño of 1997-1998. That winter brought extreme rainfall to California and Kenya, and intense drought to Indonesia.


“We might be facing a similar winter coming up,” said Stephen Yeager, a project scientist at the center who helped lead the forecasting. “This is one plausible future.”

The model predicts this El Niño will be a little less intense than the last super El Niño, which occurred in 2015-2016. That El Niño was tied to severe coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, record cyclones in the Pacific, drought and fires in Australia, a historic snowstorm along the Mid-Atlantic coast and disease outbreaks around the world.

Uncertain weather impacts

Though confidence may be high that Pacific waters will remain warm, allowing El Niño to persist for months, that does not mean scientists are sure of what that augurs for weather around the world.

A textbook El Niño includes tendencies toward dry conditions in such places as Indonesia, northern Australia and southern Africa and wet conditions across parts of South America, eastern Africa and along the southern tier of the United States. Signs are already suggesting a hot and dry summer for Australia, for example, where authorities are warning of heightened wildfire dangers.


But that does not mean the same conditions develop with each El Niño.

Peru is where El Niño got its name, signifying the baby Jesus and onset of Pacific Ocean warmth around Christmas. The pattern is known for bringing heavy rain to coastal communities there.

But in the 2015-2016 El Niño episode, that didn’t happen, said Ken Takahashi Guevara, a scientist at the Geophysical Institute of Peru and a former director of the Peruvian National Meteorology and Hydrology Service. Now, unlike other past El Niño events, winds that would help drive rainfall are again absent, he said.

“It’s not enough for us to say there is an El Niño or not,” Takahashi said. “This year is particularly hard to say something about.”

DeWitt, of the NOAA climate center, said other short-term weather patterns can make the effects of El Niño harder to detect, or render them altogether absent. Phenomena such as the Madden-Julian Oscillation, which creates unusual rainfall patterns around the Indian and Pacific oceans, and sudden stratospheric warming, when polar regions dramatically warm and frigid air plunges south, can overwhelm the El Niño signal, he said.


Though El Niño is known for bringing moisture flowing to California and the Southwest, for example, that pattern is not yet emerging, he added. When this past winter delivered record precipitation to those areas, it came on the tail end of a lengthy stretch of La Niña conditions — known for a tendency toward drought there.

“The forecasts right now are showing a fairly muted response” to El Niño in the United States, DeWitt said.

Improving future El Niño forecasts

Research is ongoing to better understand any connections between El Niño and global warming, as well as El Niño and its impacts.

Okumura is launching a study using models of atmospheric conditions to explore how El Niño might influence the occurrence of extreme precipitation around the world. Past research has found an increase in such heavy precipitation in California during El Niño.


Scientists have already established a strong connection between planetary temperatures and precipitation intensity, because warmer air is capable of holding more moisture.

And Yeager said the research behind the latest El Niño forecast is part of a broader effort to better predict weather and climate phenomena over scales of one to two years. The research team is looking at whether the current El Niño could be followed in the spring by a rapid transition to La Niña, as has occurred in the past.

Beyond that, scientists are exploring why it may be relatively easier to predict the presence of an El Niño pattern than its impacts, he added.

One of the most intense El Niños ever observed could be forming (2024)


One of the most intense El Niños ever observed could be forming? ›

One of the most intense El Niños ever observed could be forming. A fast-forming and strengthening El Niño climate pattern could peak this winter as one of the most intense ever observed, according to an experimental forecast released Tuesday.

What was the most intense El Niño? ›

Intense El Niños, like those in 1982-83 and 1997-98, have dramatic worldwide impacts, increasing the probability of droughts, floods, heat waves and extreme weather events in far reaching parts of the globe.

When did the strongest El Niño occur? ›

Courtesy of the Center for Climate Analysis. The 1982-1983 El Niño was the strongest and most devastating of the century, perhaps the worst in recorded history.

Which El Niño event was considered the most powerful one? ›

NOTE: Two of the largest El Niño events on record occurred in 1982-1983 and in 1997-1998.

Is a super El Niño possible? ›

Super El Niños are considered to be rare, as the world has only recorded three of these events since the 1950s. Despite their common appearance, El Niño events are not similar, and NOAA says the weather patterns can lead to varying impacts.

What was the worst El Niño in history? ›

The 1997–1998 El Niño was regarded as one of the most powerful El Niño–Southern Oscillation events in recorded history, resulting in widespread droughts, flooding and other natural disasters across the globe.

What are the three strongest El Niño years? ›

Ranked El Niño Events by 3-Month Season
Ranked El Niño Events by 3-Month Season
21 more rows

When was the last Extreme El Niño? ›

It is thought that there have been at least 30 El Niño events between 1900 and 2024, with the 1982–83, 1997–98 and 2014–16 events among the strongest on record. Since 2000, El Niño events have been observed in 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07, 2009–10, 2014–16, 2018–19, and 2023–24.

What causes a strong El Niño? ›

The development of El Niño events is linked to the trade winds. El Niño occurs when the trade winds are weaker than normal, and La Niña occurs when they are stronger than normal. Both cycles typically peak in December. El Niño and La Niña aren't the only cycles evident in this image series.

What were the most intense El Niño events of the 20th century? ›

El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98 were the most intense of the 20th century. During the 1982-83 event, sea-surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific were 7.8-12.8° C (9-18° F) above normal.

How bad was El Niño in 1998? ›

A fierce winter storm in January 1998 caused $400 million in losses and killed twenty-eight people, and total damages in Florida attributed to EL Niño storms were $500 million (Ross et al., 1998).

What is a major El Niño event? ›

El Niño. During El Niño, trade winds weaken. Warm water is pushed back east, toward the west coast of the Americas. El Niño means Little Boy in Spanish. South American fishermen first noticed periods of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean in the 1600s.

Does El Niño mean more snow? ›

While El Niño raises the odds for snow in certain regions, it's not a guarantee that more snow will indeed fall. Overall, a warming climate has nudged annual snowfall totals down in many states.

Should we be worried about El Niño? ›

The continuing, albeit weaker, El Niño and predicted above-normal sea-surface temperatures over much of the global oceans are expected to lead to above-normal temperatures over almost all land areas in the next three months, and influence regional rainfall patterns, according to a Global Seasonal Climate Update issued ...

Will El Niño affect 2024? ›

The El Niño of 2023–24 is weakening. Forecasters estimate an 85% chance that El Niño will end and the tropical Pacific will transition to neutral conditions by the April–June period. There's a 60% chance that La Niña will develop by June–August.

What is a strong El Niño year? ›

A strong El Niño, in the most basic definition, occurs once the average sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific is at least 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) warmer than normal. It's measured in an imaginary box along the equator, roughly south of Hawaii, known as the Nino 3.4 Index.

What are the largest El Niño events in recent history? ›

It is thought that there have been at least 30 El Niño events between 1900 and 2024, with the 1982–83, 1997–98 and 2014–16 events among the strongest on record.

What two years had the strongest El Niño events? ›

For instance, during the two strongest events in the past 60 years (1982/83 and 1997/98), much-above-median rainfall amounts fell across the entire state of California. Median or above-median precipitation was recorded over the entire state during strong episodes in both 1957/58 and 1972/73 (Figure 2).


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