Here Comes El Niño

It's Spanish for "The Niño"

Seawater temps are way, way above average near the equator. Photo: Climate Prediction Center.
Seawater temps are way, way above average near the equator. Photo: Climate Prediction Center.

Weather experts around the world are predicting an El Niño event for the fall/winter of 2014, overlapping with the winter of 2015. Normally, it’s pretty difficult for forecasters to decide during the spring whether or not we’re in for an El Niño or La Niña, for the same reason that springtime surf along the west coast is often terrible—unstable air and ocean currents that wreak havoc on climate models. But international weather agencies are confident that the El Niño pump is primed—65% chance of an El Niño according to NOAA; 70% chance according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology—because of changing conditions in the equatorial Pacific. The trade winds have reversed their normally eastern flow, and the water is heating up like crazy. As much as seven degrees Fahrenheit in parts (that’s a whole lot more than normal, even for an El Niño). The warm water plus the strength of the now-westerly flow of the trade winds, are pretty much shoo-ins to create an El Niño event. Scientists are now debating whether or not it will be one of the strongest on record. If certain models are correct, based on that equatorial wind speed, we could be in store for the most significant El Niño since 1997-’98. And that was the biggest since 1982-’83. Those years ring a bell? They were two of the most swell-filled winters California has ever seen.

El Niño events generate all that swell because of three main factors. First, they  break down high-pressure systems that tend to deflect eastern Pacific storms northward as they approach California. Second, the warmer waters of an El Niño strengthen these swell-making storms. And third, the jet stream typically drops southward during an El Niño, sending all that swell and storm energy on a direct path to smack California right in the mouth. Unfortunately, it also likely means a great deal of coastal destruction anywhere those storms can reach.

Get ready world. El Niño is coming.