2016: IS THE EL NINO SHOWING US WHERE THE EDGE OF THE CLIMATE CLIFF IS?

By NOAA

The last time the Earth had an El Nino event like 2015/16 was in 1997/98...

The two events are actually very much alike, peaking at about the same time in the first year and at about the same temperature in the Nino 3.4 section of the equatorial Pacific. In the 1997/98 case the jump in temperatures and year-on-year increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide lasted through the summer of the second year, with the first few months of the year being extra-hot. We seem to be setting up for the same thing in 2016, as January, February and March have already set new records, with both February (1.64°C)[2] [3] and March (1.58 °C)[4] [5] breaching the internationally agreed “safe-zone” of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial times set in Paris last year. The year-on-year increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide have also ramped up, with February showing a 3.4ppm increase, and recent readings at Manua Loa being well above 4ppm year over year[6].

So 2016 could provide a scorching Northern Hemisphere summer, and another record jump in global average temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The big question is whether or not the Earth system is being pushed to the point where the natural sources of carbon emissions (e.g. permafrost melting, peat bog and forest fires) will significantly increase and/or carbon sinks (e.g. ocean uptake of carbon dioxide, forested areas) will degrade. If the differences between 2016 and 2015 are bigger than the differences between 1998 and 1997, then there may be a cause for concern. For the Jan-March period the difference is significant at 1ppm, a 3.32ppm year on year increase in 2016 versus a 2.29 ppm year on year increase in 1998. Another area for concern is that the temperature difference between the two El Nino events, which are separated by l8 years, is nearly 0.5°C. That’s an average of about 0.25°C per decade, which would mean that an El Nino in the 2030’s could push us straight through 2°C.

There is a lot of natural variability though, so the whole year will be a better measure. If these differences continue through the year, the El Nino may have given us a glimpse of the point of no return with respect to global temperatures and positive carbon feedbacks. With another 0.6°C of warming already baked in from previous emissions over the next 40 years (even if humanity managed to immediately achieve zero net emissions), due to the thermal inertia of the oceans[7], we must not ignore the implications. Like a man walking toward the edge of a cliff on a foggy day who is momentarily shown a glimpse of that edge, it would be stupid to continue on the same course.

 

References


[1] Climate Prediction Centre (2016), ENSO: Recent Evolution, Current Status And Predictions, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. Accessible at http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/lanina/enso_evolution-status-fcsts-web.pdf

[2] NASA (2016), Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies (Land-Ocean Temperature Index, LOTI): Global-mean monthly, seasonal, and annual means, NASA. Accessible at http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt

[3] The 1951-1980 baseline used is approx. 0.3°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures. See James Hansen and Makiko Sato (2016), Regional climate change and national responsibilities, Environmental Research Letters 11 (2016) 034009. Accessible at http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/3/034009/pdf

[4] NASA (2016), Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies (Land-Ocean Temperature Index, LOTI): Global-mean monthly, seasonal, and annual means, NASA. Accessible at http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt

[5] The 1951-1980 baseline used is approx. 0.3°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures. See James Hansen and Makiko Sato (2016), Regional climate change and national responsibilities, Environmental Research Letters 11 (2016) 034009. Accessible at http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/3/034009/pdf

[6] Earth System Research Laboratory (2016), Trends In Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, NOAA. Accessible at http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/

[7] Alan Marshall (2010), Climate Change: The 40-Year Difference Between Cause and Effect, Skeptical Science. Accessible at http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climate-Change-The-40-Year-Delay-Between-Cause-and-Effect.html

by Roger Boyd, originally published by Humanity's Test

To see our most current positions, opinions, comments, agreement or disagreement with this article, and/or possible criticisms related to the subjects or facts raised in the above article, click here.  Then look for those subjects in the navigation links at the top the page. To learn about more about global warming, climate change or greenhouse gases as well as the causes, consequences, solutions, definitions, facts and tipping points related to these subjects, click here
 
To automatically be emailed a summary of the latest news on global warming, sign up for our Global Warming Blog by clicking here. (Put your email address in the Global Warming Blog Subscribe box at the bottom right of the page.) 
 
To sign a critical petition for declaring a national and international global warming State of Emergency, click  here!

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.