End of El Nino Could Land Us in 'Uncharted Territory'

Scientists hope for a break in heat with La Nina, fear for the alternative
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 9, 2024 3:14 PM CDT
End of El Nino Could Land Us in 'Uncharted Territory'
A volunteer distributes drinking water next to a bus stand on a hot summer day in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, March 21, 2024.   (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A., File)

"Last month was the hottest on record." It's a phrase you've probably heard a lot lately. Last month was indeed the warmest March on record, just as the previous month was the warmest February on record, following the warmest January on record. That's been the pattern for the last 10 months, and "it's fueled concerns among some that the world could be tipping into a new phase of even faster climate change," the BBC reports. El Nino has surely played a role in the recent record-breaking heat, and some say the flip to La Niña will bring relief. But "by the end of the summer, if we're still looking at record-breaking temperatures in the North Atlantic or elsewhere, then we really have kind of moved into uncharted territory," Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, tells the BBC.

Some scientists see cause for concern in record-breaking temperatures from September, when El Nino was just getting underway. "We're still trying to understand why the situation changed so dramatically in the middle of last year, and how long this situation will continue, whether it is a phase shift or whether it's a blip in long-term climate trends," says Dr. Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. "Our predictions failed quite dramatically for the specifics of 2023, and if previous statistics don't work, then it becomes much harder to say what's going to happen in the future," adds Schmidt.

This follows a recent study that found climate change is affecting the formation of El Nino. Its onset has been historically linked to changes in solar output. But the study published in Geophysical Research Letters in October, which looked at trends through cave stalagmites in Alaska, found that changed 50 years ago. As study co-author Paul Wilcox of the University of Innsbruck said in a statement, "climate change may have led to a climatic tipping point being crossed in the 1970s with the initiation of a more permanent El Nino pattern." Either way, if we don't act to cut greenhouse gas admissions now, "we are committing ourselves towards a future where 2023 will be the new normal," Dr. Angelique Melet, an expert in sea level changes at Mercator Ocean International, tells the BBC. (More climate change stories.)

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