SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF / AP) — Warmer ocean temperatures off the California coast–and the massive impact on local and global climate–could be coming again, with predictions indicating an El Niño is possible this year.
The expected conditions would lead to more rain this coming winter, lessening California’s drought, and the southern states’ drought, plus a milder winter for the nation’s frigid northern states, and fewer Atlantic hurricanes.
Mike Halpert, acting director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, says the El Nino warming should develop by this summer, but that there are no guarantees. Although early signs are appearing already a few hundred feet below the ocean surface, meteorologists say an El Nino started to brew in 2012 and then shut down suddenly and unexpectedly.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric and Administration did issue an official El Nino watch Thursday.
An El Nino is a warming of the central Pacific once every few years, from a combination of wind and waves in the tropics. It shakes up climate around the world, changing rain and temperature patterns. The flip side of El Nino is called a La Nina, which has a general cooling effect. It has been much more frequent than El Ninos lately, with five La Ninas and two small-to-moderate El Ninos in the past nine years. The last big El Nino was 1997-1998. Neither has appeared since mid-2012. El Ninos are usually strongest from December to April.
Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who wasn’t part of NOAA’s forecast, agreed that an El Nino is brewing.
“This could be a substantial event and I think we’re due,” Trenberth said. “And I think it could have major consequences.”
Halpert said it is too early to say how strong this El Nino will be. The last four have been weak or moderate and those have fewer effects on weather.
While it could be good news for water supplies, “worldwide it can be quite a different story,” said North Carolina State University atmospheric sciences professor Ken Kunkel. “Some areas benefit. Some don’t.”
Globally, it can mean an even hotter year coming up and billions of dollars in losses for food crops.
Scientific studies have tied El Ninos to farming and fishing problems and to upticks in insect-born disease, such as malaria. Commodity traders even track El Nino cycles. A study by Texas A&M University economics professor Bruce McCarl found the last big El Nino of 1997-1998 cost about $3 billion in agricultural damage.
Trenberth said this El Nino may even push the globe out of a decade-long slowdown in temperature increase, “so suddenly global warming kicks into a whole new level.”
Kunkel said if this El Nino is a strong one, global temperatures, probably in 2015, could “be in near record breaking territory.”
Halpert, however, says El Ninos can be beneficial, and that the one being forecast is “a perfect case.”
After years of dryness and low reservoirs, an El Nino’s wet weather would be welcome in places like California, Halpert said.
“If they get too much rain, I think they’d rather have that situation rather than another year of drought,” Halpert said. “Sometimes you have to pick your poison.”
Australia and South Africa should be dry while parts of South America become dry and parts become wet in an El Nino. Peru suffers the most, getting floods and poorer fishing.
The climate event got the name El Nino, meaning the boy in Spanish, when it was first noticed off the coast of Peru and Ecuador around Christmas time and was named after Christ child, according to Trenberth.
TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.