El Niño

May 18, 2023

Inside my Sunday newspaper I found an article on the rising global sea temperatures during March and April of this year.  Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth reported above average temperatures nearly everywhere in the ocean.  The surface temperature of the sea rose to a higher level than ever recorded during this same time of March and stayed there for over a month.  Global sea surface temperatures for the first three months of 2023 are the fourth warmest in 174 years, at 1.87F (1C) above last century’s average.  The combined land and sea temperatures are especially concerning as this is a potential El Niño year.  If a strong El Niño develops there is a chance for a record warm year.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded higher land temperatures over the winter and early spring.

When I looked online, I found an El Niño (Spanish, ‘The Boy’) is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific, including the area off the Pacific coast of South America.  The ENSO is the cycle of warm and cold sea surface temperature (SST) of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean.  El Niño is accompanied by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern Pacific.  El Niño phases are known to last around four years, but records show the cycles have lasted between two and seven years.  The cool phase of ENSO is La Niña (Spanish, ‘The Girl’), with SSTs in the eastern Pacific below average, and air pressure high in the eastern Pacific and low in the western Pacific.  The ENSO cycle (both El Niño and La Niña) causes global changes in temperature and rainfall.  In the El Niño phase of the Oscillation, the pool of warm water in the Pacific near South America is often at its warmest about Christmas.  The original phrase, El Niño de Navidad, arose centuries ago, when Peruvian fishermen named the weather phenomenon after the newborn Christ.

El Niño cycles affect both oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems.  On land, rodent outbreaks were observed in northern Chile and along the Peruvian coastal desert following the 1972-73 El Niño and nocturnal primates like the western tarsiers (Tarsius bancanus), the slow loris (Nycticebus coucang), and the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) were either eradicated or greatly reduced on a local basis.  During the 1982–83, 1997–98 and 2015–16 ENSO events, large areas of tropical forests experienced a prolonged drought resulting in widespread fires and drastic changes in forest structure and tree species in Amazonian and Bornean forests.  Declines in insect populations accompanied the loss of vegetation f during El Niño 2015–16, and this brought declines in habitat-specialist bird species and in large Fruit eating (frugivorous) mammals in the burned Amazonian forests.  Most critically, global mass bleaching events were recorded in 1997-98 and 2015–16, when around 75-99% losses of live coral were registered across the world.  Collapse of Peruvian and Chilean anchovy populations led to a severe fishery crisis following the ENSO events in 1972–73, 1982–83, 1997–98 and in 2015–16.  These findings enlarge the role of ENSO events as strong climatic forces driving ecological change around the world, especially in tropical forests and coral reefs.  The little boy is becoming increasingly bad.

Thoughts:  While there is no consensus whether climate change has an influence on the occurrence, strength, or duration of El Niño events, research supports El Niño events are becoming stronger and longer, as well as shorter and weaker and recent scholarship has found climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme El Niño events.  Like so many effects human pollution has on the environment, we are causing greater extremes.  This will continue until all humans decide to make a difference.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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