Southern oscillation, global outreach

El Niño is upon us once more, generating a flurry of foreboding headlines predicting floods, famine and fluctuating temperatures. But what does this really mean for the Great British weather? Ciara Ritson-Courtney investigates

23rd November 2015

This year’s El Niño southern oscillation is expected to be the strongest on record since 1950. But what is the El Niño effect? Meaning little boy in Spanish, El Niño is a phenomena in which the surface temperature of the ocean in the east central Equatorial Pacific becomes warmer than normal and fluctuations occur between the ocean and atmosphere, usually around December time. Originally recognised in the 1600’s off the coast of South America by fishermen, El Niño can significantly alter and influence ocean conditions and weather patterns across the globe.

In the local region of the Pacific, the effects are well known with generally higher rainfall and warmer waters as the upwelling of cool, nutrient rich, water in the western Pacific ceases. However, the effects of El Niño can be felt worldwide with it being characterised as the cause of many hurricanes in the eastern Pacific Ocean such as Hurricane Patricia, which hit Mexico in late October this year. El Niño is related to global atmospheric oscillations and increases the likelihood of hurricanes and cyclones. This is due to the low-pressure episodes that usually accompany it across the eastern Pacific region and the high pressure it creates over Indonesia and Australia. This mixed with the higher surface water temperature leads to a quickening of water evaporation and high air currents which can lead to storms, hurricanes and cyclones.

It comes as no surprise that the El Niño effect will not just affect the countries surrounding the pacific, this is due to the fact that the Pacific covers almost a third of the earth’s surface area. The ripples of El Niño can be felt in regions far from the Pacific with shifts in tropical rainfall, which, in turn, affect wind patterns such as the eastern trade winds. High El Niño can lead to flooding, mudslides, drought and agricultural failure in many regions of the world.

“It has been speculated that the effects of this year’s El Niño have already been felt in the UK  with the unusually strong storm Abigail”

In Europe and the UK the consequences of El Niño aren’t as clear as in other regions.  The effect is generally more noticeable in winter and is suggested to cause colder drier conditions in northern Europe and drier milder winters in southern Europe.  Despite the colder spell in northern Europe however, El Niño generally leads to an increase in global temperatures. It has been speculated that the effects of this year’s El Niño have already been felt in the UK  with the unusually strong storm Abigail which saw wind speeds of up to 90mph , the UK’s first named storm of the year, and the more recent storm Barney. Leon Brown, a meterologist at The Weather channel UK has implied that this years super-strength El Nio has the potential to displace the jetstream that controls our weather. Brown stated that “A more mobile weather pattern through winter increases the risk of a wetter, stormier season in the UK... (but the biggest impact) is around the tropics as we have started to see with a greater number of tropical storms.”

During high El Niño, more than just climate is affected. It is known to perturb marine life, leading to unfavourable fishing in many regions. While this is good in the eyes of many fish and non-fish eaters, it has highly negative effects on developing countries in the tropics whose food production and exports decline leading to fluctuations in their economy. El Niño is also known to have an effect on the birth and mortality rate of Northern fur seal pups and Californian sea lions. This is due to the loss of upwelling nutrients from the deep, cool ocean which usually supports the growth of phytoplankton, which in turn feeds zooplankton, then fish. This means the prey of sea mammals moves deeper in the Ocean, becoming less available to the mammals and particularly hard to reach for the young pups.

Due to the strength of this year’s El Niño effect, we can expect a snowy and bitterly cold winter to be on its way; so, if you ever needed motivation to get your work done, the draw of the Robbo’s sub-tropical heating regime may be the motivation you need.

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