Climate scientists are beginning to see evidence of an El Niño condition forming in the Pacific Ocean and some warn it could be a whopper, similar to the 1997-98 event that altered weather patterns around the world and severely damaged the fragile ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands.
“We’re carefully watching the development of an El Niño this spring and into summer,” said forecaster Tony Barnston of Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society in a video message posted on the IRI’s website. The institute puts the odds of El Niño developing at 60%.
That’s about in the middle of various El Niño predictions. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts the odds at better than 50/50. According to an April 10 NOAA bulletin, “The chances of El Niño increase during the remainder of the year, and exceed 50% by the summer.”
But meteorologists in Australia say the chances are greater than 70%. Of course, it’s hardly news when weather people disagree about their prognostications and El Niño predictions made this early tend to be imperfect.
Over a span of years, water temperatures in the Pacific fluctuate between warm and cold in a pattern known as the El Niño Southern oscillation. An El Niño episode occurs when the normal Pacific trade winds are replaced by strong winds blowing from the west, piling up warm water in the eastern part of the ocean. This has a profound effect on global weather for many months. And right now, the ocean and the air above it are showing many of the telltale symptoms.
“Below the surface, we have a lot of warming,” said Barnston.
Indeed, some of the temperature readings point to the beginnings of a giant El Niño that would be on a par with the one in 1997-98. That event caused $35 billion in damage and claimed an estimated 23,000 human lives worldwide, according to the University of New South Wales in Australia. We’d better get used to it, said university scientists, who predict a doubling in severe El Niño activity because of global climate change.
“El Niño has ravaged the Galápagos,” Capt. Wellington Renteria of the Ecuadorian Navy’s Oceanographic Institute (INOCAR) told the news agency AFP, “In particular, the rise in temperature has caused almost all the coral reefs to disappear.”
INOCAR, working with American oceanographers, is using unmanned submarines off Galápagos as part of a study to see whether climate change and warming oceans are indeed stepping up the frequency and severity of El Niño episodes.
In addition to destroying the coral reefs, El Niño episodes disrupt the marine food supply, causing algae beds to die, starving marine iguanas, turtles and fish. Birds, including blue footed boobies, albatrosses and frigates, must scramble for sustenance as the ocean waters are deprived of nutrients. The same is true for marine life.
“Species that are on the border of survival or extinction might actually be tipped over the edge,” said Dr. Stuart Banks, a marine scientist with the Charles Darwin Foundation. “We’ve already seen several possible extinctions.”
Galápagos tourists who arrive during the next El Niño will likely have to put up with unusually heavy rains, something that’s been observed in the past.
Jack Nelson, longtime Galápagos resident and co-owner of the Scuba Iguana dive shop on Santa Cruz Island remembers the 1982-83 El Niño vividly: “The ocean was over 80°F at 180 feet depth for many months,” he wrote in a posting on Facebook, “and the rain poured literally in sheets, solid curtains of warm water falling straight down.”
Chicago department store mogul Leon Mandel, who sponsored a scientific expedition to the islands in the winter of 1940-41 during an El Niño event, wrote: “It has rained every day since we have been here; not all day, but neither has it only showered in brief, tropical fashion.”
In a February 7, 1941 entry in his journal, Mandel wrote of a trip to the town of Progreso in the interior of San Cristóbal Island: “A road leading up is usually passable on horseback, but is now so muddy it takes a man driving a burro four hours to make the seven kilometers.”
With the rains come mosquitos that increase the spread of tropical diseases. Also flourishing in the wet are invasive animals such as feral cats, dogs and goats that prey on the islands’ native flora and fauna.
As they wait to see if their predictions will pan out, climate scientists say much will depend on the wind and ocean temperature patterns over the next few months to determine if there will be a major El Niño episode.
The Darwin Foundation’s Dr. Banks worries about whether the warnings will be written off as a case of “crying wolf.”
“People have been anticipating a strong El Niño for a while now and are perhaps a bit desensitized,” he said, in an email to Galápagos Digital.
Meanwhile, scientists around the world are waiting and watching that big blob of warm water beneath the surface of the Pacific.