Super El Niño Impends

Okay. this looks real. The predictions have firmed up for a large El Niño and quite likely a huge one this winter. Hang on to your hat!

Here It Comes!

The following three images and the captions are brazenly stolen from a DialyKos diary by “pollwatcher”:

There’s a bunch of models that try to predict El Niño events.  Lets look at a series of predictions for the last three weeks, with the earliest first.


The above is the model predictions for March 17.


This one is for March 27.


And this last one is from April 6.

Notice how the models were kinda scattered all over the place in the first run, and how they keep kinda bunching up over the next couple of runs? Also notice that last week the predicted sea temperature for the October November December time frame took a pretty big jump over the previous week. I want to emphasize that the further away the models predict, especially in the spring, the bigger chance they could be wrong. But the fact that the models seem to be converging, seems to indicate they might be on to something.

(end of quote)

“pollwatcher” also points us to this interesting report from last January by Brian Kahn on research by Cai et al entitled “Increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events due to greenhouse warming” finds just such a trend (fewer but much larger El Niño) in CMIP models. Kevin Trenberth objects to this sort of model study – after all, why should we find this prediction reliable when most of the models, while they do have an equatorial oscillation, don’t get the details, including the time spectrum, right.

senThis reticence is a sign of just how sophisticated the system understanding of people like Kevin is, and how the community leaders actually treat models and model studies. This one is far from the worst application of the CMIP dataset around, but it does raise some questions, especially in the light of an absence of a dynamic explanation.

It doesn’t surprise me at all, though. For reasons I’m not sure I can articulate in any way that will get anyone on earth to understand and believe me, this outcome (fewer, bigger El Niño events) agrees with my expectations on general systems dynamics principles. For the moment, let’s just say find the CMIP model consensus plausible in a speculative sort of way.

Hiatus or Drama? Will the El Niño of 2014-15 tell the tale?

So far as we know, there have been two prior Super-El-Niños, in 1983 and 1998.

Now look at the temperature record (via Joe Romm at ThinkProgress):


(Ignore the cute volcanoes.)

It is not hard to see this picture as consisting of three regimes in the global temperature; from the beginning of the record until 1982, from 1982 to 1998, and from 1998 to the present (a few years ago on this image). Are large El Niño events actually a sign of a rearrangement of the whole system? When the East Pacific warm pool dissipates, where does it go? My understanding is a pair of warm coastal waves symmetrically spreading from equatorial South America poleward and then around the Pacific. These coastal Kelvin Waves are a proposed mechanism for the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

The way this is likely to play out from here physically, then is an unprecdented global mean temperature in 2015 much as appeared in 1998, accompanied by even weirder weather. (Was the Montreal and Vermont Ice Storm of 1998 part of the first incident of global weirding?) Then perhaps a reassuring cooling back to the 2000-2013 baseline and then a gradual waring back to the new anomalous peak as the wamr water spreads around the Pacific.

(As an aside, the complicating factor of the not as yet understood bump in temperatures in the 1940s is truncated off this image. The picture is not quite as pretty as it looks here if you include the early 1940s. I’m still wondering if the 1940s is a data artifact of some kind. So the picture I painted, even if it holds water, is admittedly not complete.)

So What?

The question at hand every day for the rest of our lives and generations to come when we look at the skies will be “How weird is this?” While the slower emergence of an increase in global mean temperature may allow someone to make a claim that “global warming has stopped”, they are out of line if they claim “climate change has stopped”. For God’s sake, that is the same period that saw the end of perennial ice in most of the Arctic.

When you talk to actual practicing meteorologists, they are shaking their heads in astonished horror. This is not your Daddy’s atmosphere, they say. I defer to the people who pore over these maps every day, people like Stu Ostro, Steve Skolnick, and especially Jeff Masters, whose online weather predictions I have been following since the early days of the internet. These guys say things are bizarre. Roger Pielke Jr. notwithstanding, the actuarial statistics for the past few years (via the Jeff Masters article linked above) do too:


So the point is this – it sure as hell looks more like the bend in a new hockey stick. It’s too early to be sure; these are noisy statistics by nature.  But that pattern is both too important and too striking to just shrug off with arguments from statistical significance as if this were a clinical trial of some sort.

[ UPDATE – see also ]

This kind of change is NOT what climate science expected. It expected higher transient climate sensitivity, but less weirding.

So we may be jumping up to a new level of oddity in the climate. This is sooner than expected, but at this point it looks pretty damned inevitable if it hasn’t happened yet.

There’s some interesting things to say about the epistemic status of the short-run El Niño models vs that of the CMIP ensembles. The former are simple and inexpensive and are predicting a specific trajectory. They are weather-like in that sense, even though traditionally they would be called “climate predictions”, unfortunately.

The latter can help answer harder questions, but some care needs to be taken in interpreting their results. A climate model is a climate science tool, not a prognostic tool; that’s Kevin’s point in questioning Cai et al.  And only time and further research will eventually conspire to validate or invalidate Cai once and for all.

But an ENSO model is a prognostic tool, one whose skill becomes higher as the year advances. It now appears that we will not avoid at the very least a large El Niño and very likely a new global mean temperature record.

So Climate Change Hasn’t Stopped Yet?

Some people have staked out a position that “global warming has not stopped” by redefining “global warming” to mean ocean warming. I am really sick of this sloppy “global warming” terminology and try to avoid it altogether, but I think adding yet another meaning to this pile of overlapping ideas is a very bad idea. In the only sense that I think it should ever be used “global warming”, meaning the upward trend in mean surface temperature, has indeed been dramatically slower than expected.

But it’s also true that the harder we kick the system, the less use the models will be to us, as we take the Earth outside the range that the models are tuned to reproduce. We have essentially no observations of a far-from-equilibrium planet other than, to a very limited extent, the termination of the last glaciation. The less attention we pay to the warnings, the less effective the current and easily foreseeable generations of climate models will be.

In fact, it’s not a contradiction to say that global warming is in a hiatus while climate change has accelerated.

The next few years will tell us more about the persistence of the global temperature hiatus. I’ll lay you odds that 2015 is the hottest year yet, but whether it brings us back up to the model trend line is another question. Either way, saying this means climate change has stopped is bullshit. Unfortunately. Climate can’t stop changing until we stop kicking it harder with every passing year, and we kick it harder in every year that our net greenhouse emissions exceed zero.

Here comes El Zilla!

Photo via Cory Doctorow at boingboing via Think Geek


  1. I think there was a double nino in early 40s, at least i think I saw some analysis pointing this way.

  2. still on the fourties, looks like there was quite little volcanism too, only two smallish eruptions between 1934-1944, this explanation though would require that even smaller eruptions produce a small effect lasting a year or two... there are also periods of total absence of notable VEI4 or higher eruptions, 1862-1871 (maybe here's some remote eruption we don't know about) , 1920-1923, 1957-1962, 1990-1995 are other periods of low volcanism.

  3. is some sort of reconstruction of ocean temperatures in Pacific which is close to MEI-index on the post-1950 times

    on volcanoes, smithsonian institution had a list of large holocene eruptions listing all known VEI4 eruptions that I captured and edited for own use (?some time in 2009?) but since the overhaul of their site, this would now likely have to be recreated from this:
    and at least for me the search doesn't work.

  4. If you allow me to assume that the phrase "upward trend in mean surface temperature" that you assign to the term "global warming" is missing the "long term" qualifier it really requires if you are thinking about climate changes, then I need to object to your acceptance of the Curry tribe's "pause" or "hiatus" or even slow down meme.

    As the simplest and clearest justification I know of for that objection, I would like to offer this article by Tamino, and there are many others by him and others, many of which you are undoubtedly aware of.

    If this super El Nino materializes as you describe above, this faux pause will vanish just like every other one on SkS' "down the up escalator" graphic.

  5. Tamino's graph is interesting. It is nevertheless the case that even accounting for the El Nino oscillation the temperature is by now not as high as model projections said. Clearly something is missing from the models. It appears that what the models miss is a path for the heat down to the deeper layers of the oceans.

    But the more important thing the models get wrong is the accelerated impacts that are probably (but not definitively as yet) being seen. In retrospect unsurprising because models have always been unable to get really severe events to happen at all.

  6. "It is nevertheless the case that even accounting for the El Nino oscillation the temperature is by now not as high as model projections said."

    Well, we don't know that yet, do we? I take your point about it not being the key issue, but...

  7. No, I think at this point it's increasingly hard to argue that the CMIP models capture the early 21st century trajectory ensemble correctly while reality just happens to be an outlier.

  8. You don't want to die by that sword anyway -- invites comparative conclusions like a La Niña proving a "faux rise".

  9. MT:

    No, I think at this point it's increasingly hard to argue that the CMIP models capture the early 21st century trajectory ensemble correctly while reality just happens to be an outlier.

    You know about Kosaka and Xie 2013, of course. They argue that when ENSO events are included at their observed timing and strength rather than randomly, CMIP2.1 appears to capture reality pretty well. Doesn't seem so hard to me.

  10. I think you have that backwards, but point taken.

    That said, some of us are trying to prove a point, and others of us want to know what is true. If "my" arguments die and climate disruption goes away, I will be far more happy and relieved than embarrassed, I promise.

  11. I've been trying to get an idea of what is going on, with my technical and perceptual limitations, and came across a not very old paper about how the heat now coming back to us in that Kelvin wave was pushed east by the Pacific trade winds:

    The first paragraph seems prescient to me:

    The strongest trade winds have driven more of the heat from global warming into the oceans. But when those winds slow, that heat will rapidly return to the atmosphere causing an abrupt rise in global average temperatures, researchers report.

    It seems perfectly obvious that heat has been building up in the eastern Pacific, at depth as well as on the surface, and this is coming back to haunt us in the form of storms like Haiyan and now the Kelvin wave. The magnitude is still in question, but it does appear it will be large at the very least. I am not looking forward to a substantial El Nino, and I don't think anyone else should be celebrating the festival of ignorance that promotes ignorance over fact.

    On another front, there has been a lot of argument over our recent cold, and I think thisthrows some facts at that particular preference for fake argument. Tom Yulsman, hardly a radical, makes it simple and straightforward, not to mention obvious.

    Now anyone wishing to get into the thickets on the developing El Nino can also go to Neven's forum on the subject. (It is necessary to register to see graphics and photographs.),730.600.html

  12. I agree more or less with the 3 regimes you mentioned. With many time series graphs my mind sees fast heating followed be slow cooling. The SkS climate escalator is a good example. Tisdale has also mentioned something like step changes up, might be happening. The ENSO region is one of the most interesting. As was mentioned, Kosaka and Xie indicated it was kind of a key.

  13. as to the 1940s, after 9-11, I read of temp change due to less vapor trails. 1940s had lots of planes, nuclear bomb testing and use, and a massive amount of smoke from burning cities. poss higher use of diesel fuel in ships or tanks, kerosene also. I expect a massive industrial pollution from quickly built facilities. Might be interesting to correlate those effects on climate. Just how much dust is produced by war events.

  14. Is it the case that more current data and projections tend toward a more moderate El Niño as described here? I strongly suspect that the Fabius Maximus blog might not be among the favorites of P3 regulars, nevertheless, I'd be curious as to Michael's response to the data and quotes presented with respect to the likelihood of a super El Niño. On the other hand, I think I can predict his response to this post, particularly since Judith Curry alerted Fabius Maximus to Botkin's testimony.

  15. Fabius is the most cogent challenger I have seen in quite some time. More to follow, and thanks. Kudos to the Republicans for getting someone who isn't a clown or a cartoon villain to testify for them. For a change, but better late than never.

    On the other subject I am sure I didn't say I was sure about a Super-ENSO.

    The odds are down a bit but I am not counting it out yet. If it happens it will reshuffle the cards substantially on a number of fronts. But it might not happen.

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