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2015: Some Like It Hot

February 18, 2014 – A new El Nino prediction method is stirring up controversy.  Developed by researchers from Germany, Russia, Israel and the U.S., they maintain they can predict El Nino events with 76% accuracy up to a year in advance.  The current method has yet to surmount a so-called ”spring predictability barrier,” thereby limiting forecasts to a six month lead time.

As a reminder, El Nino’s begin in the Pacific Ocean, off the equatorial coast of South America, which includes the countries of Ecuador and Peru.  The water of the ocean in this location heats up.  They have increased in severity over the years, causing climatic chaos around the world.  Hot, humid weather in the U.S. and South America, along with heavy rain, often leads to flooding on these two continents.  The opposite effect takes hold in southeast Asia and Australia, where intense drought has lead to greatly extended wildfire seasons.  El Nino’s are actually part of a larger event known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), of which La Nina – a cooling of Pacific waters – is also a part.

When El Nino combines with other climate change effects, temperatures climb.  It is therefore of more than passing interest that the new prediction model indicates that an El Nino will begin at the end of this year.  Not only that, the National Weather Service and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society also say that the conventional method they use shows a doubling of the chances an El Nino will begin later this year.  Next year could well be the hottest year ever recorded.

The new forecast method makes use of a strong link found to exist between surface air temperatures across the Pacific and surface air temperatures in the region where El Nino’s first take shape.  Water temperatures are not taken into consideration.  The looked-for link develops roughly a year before an El Nino begins.  Because no explanation is offered for the observed connection, it does not sit well with some climatologists.  “This is classic bravado – they make a forecast: if it is wrong, everyone forgets.  If they are right, they get big points.  In the meantime, people cite their papers,” huffed Lisa Goddard, director and senior scientist of the International Research Institute at Columbia University. “There is no explanation of what is going on.”

However, the information, if as accurate as claimed, could be of great practical use to farmers worldwide.  “Anything that can increase planning and reduce uncertainty can be a moneymaker,” said Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The main advantage of a warning – as long as it has sufficient reliability – is for managing water and farming.”  Knowing, for instance, that a drought is likely can help to determine what crop to grow, what seeds to plant, what fertilizer to use, and which fields to farm.

So it looks like the real test begins later this year.  Will the new forecasting method hold up?  Humans continue to learn the way they always have: two steps forward, one step back.  That will have to be good enough!

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