According to new satellite imagery from NOAA (see photo), the naturally occurring El Niño event that’s been affecting our climate globally is dissipating in dramatic fashion, leading to an abrupt changeover to a La Niña. The satellites, which measure sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies, show the current El Niño is starting to lose steam after reaching its peak in December 2015. An El Niño event occurs when the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean has warmer-than-normal SSTs. The current El Niño was first registered in April 2015 and grew in strength over the ensuing months.
El Niños span such a large section of the tropical Pacific Ocean that they can affect the climate from New England to New Zealand. First noticed by sailors in the 1500s, only recently have El Niños been thoroughly documented and analyzed with scientific rigor. And since the 1980s, satellites have been taking pictures of Earth’s oceans, with particular focus on these SST anomalies.
Many climate experts think the current El Niño will quickly turn into a La Niña event, the ugly step-sister of this ocean oscillation. La Niñas are notable because SSTs become colder-than-normal in the same region, and this flip also has ramifications on our climate. The reason many scientists believe this flip will occur is that since 1950, 11 of the last 15 strong El Niños were immediately followed by equally strong La Niñas?
According to the latest SST maps, temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean are still above normal but much less warmer than what they were only a month ago. As the Northern Hemisphere transitions into spring and summer, this overall cooling trend should continue. Though SSTs may return to normal, the likelihood is strong that the oceanic cycle will flip into a La Niña by the end of 2016. The three strongest El Niños since satellite measurements began all transitioned into La Niñas.
And while El Niños give us warmer winters, lower heating bills, and beneficial rainfall, La Niñas produce hotter, drier summers resulting in lower crop yields. La Niñas also generate colder-than-normal winter temperatures yielding higher heating costs, plus longer, more intense droughts during the summer. Historically, when an El Niño transitions quickly into a La Niña, as it did on three previous occasions in the satellite record, the results weren’t pretty.
As the Wall Street Daily reported, “an El Niño transitioned to a La Niña [1983-84] during the crop year. Corn production that year fell by nearly half, to its lowest level in 13 years. The soybean crop output also fell to a seven-year low.” The same thing happened in 1988, when a La Niña quickly followed an intense El Niño, “triggering one of the most widespread droughts the United States had ever experienced.”
Not only is the United States affected by La Niñas, but so are other crop-producing countries. The last La Niña to occur was in 2012, and “corn yields fell to a 17-year low at 123.4 bushels per acre.” During the 2008-09 La Niña, Argentina’s soybean production fell by 30 percent. Averaged out, grain production during a La Niña year were about 50 percent higher compared to years with “normal weather.”
Brazil and Latin American countries are also impacted by a La Niña year, as they both produce grains, sugar, and coffee, all reliant on precipitation. A year after the last La Niña event, wheat prices went up 21 percent and soybeans shot up 39 percent. Sugar went up a stunning 67 percent.