El Niño: Godzilla vs. the Hiatus

by Eric Ellman

Whether or not the emerging El Niño ends California’s terrible drought is uncertain, says a noted Yale meteorologist, but its likely impact on average global temperature should silence arguments about a hiatus in global warming.

Professor Ron Smith, winner of the American Meteorological Society’s Jule G. Charney award and Director of Yale’s Earth Observation Center, has taught a course on fundamentals of atmosphere and ocean physics at Yale every fall for 30 years.  But this is only the second time he’ll be teaching it as an El Niño develops in the Pacific Ocean, one that weather service professionals have dubbed “Godzilla” El Niño in recognition of its disruptive potential and likelihood of representing the largest aberration of East Pacific ocean temperatures since they began noting the phenomenon in the 1970s. 

If predictions hold out, Smith says, surplus heat that has been cycling deep into the cold Pacific for much of the last decade and a half will evolve back out, causing average global temperatures to spike above a high plateau that skeptics have used to sew doubt about climate change.  The idea of a hiatus was always tenuous, based on a snapshot of data, beginning with record temperatures registered during the last big El Niño in 1998.  In June, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency released new data demonstrating how even viewed through that narrow lens, temperature rise in the past 15 years has been at least as steady as the general warming trend of the last half of the 20th Century.

Smith’s “Geology and Geophysics 140: The Ocean, The Atmosphere and Environmental Change” affords students a chance to see whether the hiatus theory crumbles, taught by a Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize winner. During the first month they will learn about fundamentals of energy transfer, such as convective processes that have been cycling trillions of joules of the sun’s energy into cold, deep Pacific waters.  By October and November, Smith anticipates, students will be watching real-time data on NOAA’s website as that cycle ends, and characteristics of El Niño emerge: trade winds that characteristically blow east to west will slacken or possibly reverse, water temperatures off the coast of South America will rise by 2-3 degrees Centigrade, and biological productivity there will plummet.   

Whether this El Niño will produce the same sort of storms over the Eastern pacific that repeatedly barreled into the mountains of California, producing mudslides and flooding as happened during the winter of 1997-98 is an open question.  Not all El Niños produce abundant rain, cautions Smith, who 40 years ago helped demonstrate that an El Niño applies sufficient torque to the Rocky Mountains as to measurably slow down Earth’s rotation by a few microseconds.  Whether this “Godzilla” El Niño is strong enough to settle any questions about a global warming “hiatus” waits to be seen as well.

Link to NOAA el Niño website: http://www.elnino.noaa.gov/

Class online: http://oyc.yale.edu/geology-and-geophysics/gg-140#sessions


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