From The Irish Times , Published on 28 December 2015
From some of the worst floods ever known in Britain, to record-breaking temperatures over the Christmas holiday in the US and forest fires in Australia, tumultuous recent weather events are likely to be down to the natural phenomenon known as El Niño making the effects of man-made climate change worse, say atmospheric scientists.
El Niño occurs every seven to eight years and is caused by unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean. This year’s event is now peaking and is one of the strongest on record, leading to record temperatures, rainfall and weather extremes.
“What we are experiencing is typical of an early winter El Niño effect,” said Adam Scaife , head of the British Met Office’s long-range forecasting.
“We expect 2016 to be the warmest year ever, primarily because of climate change but around 25 per cent because of El Niño,” said Mr. Scaife.
He said the phenomenon was not linked directly to climate change but made its effects worse.
Scientists have warned for years that extreme weather would become more common as a result of climate change, but have until recently fought shy of attributing single events to global warming.
But researchers at Oxford University and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) calculated earlier in December 2015 that man-made climate change was partly responsible for Storm Desmond’s torrential rain, which devastated parts of Ireland, Scotland and England. The scientists ran tens of thousands of simulations of the flooding event and found it 40 per cent more likely with climate change.
The UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) expects 2015 to be the hottest year on record worldwide, with Europe experiencing its second hottest year. It was marked by heatwaves in India, Pakistan and elsewhere.
The latest floods, droughts and extreme weather are what might be expected of a strong El Niño, according to the WMO. “Severe droughts and devastating flooding are being experienced throughout the tropics, and subtropical zones bear the hallmarks of this El Niño,” said its secretary general, Michel Jarraud .
Much of Eastern Europe has been exceptionally warm. Only in parts of Ireland were temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 long-term average, according to the climate indicator bulletin from WMO’s European regional climate center.
The widespread El Niño effects are now being felt in Africa, Latin America, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the WMO said.
In Central America, one of the most severe droughts on record has left 3.5 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in need of food aid. The UN says more than two million people have been affected in Peru and Ecuador.
In Ethiopia , the government estimates that 10.2 million people will need help in 2016 at a cost of $1.4 billion (€1.28 billion). Elsewhere in Africa, staple crops have been devastated in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa. Food shortages are expected to peak in southern Africa in February.
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