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We Asked an Expert What the 2015 El Niño Will Mean for Australia

The largest El Niño in close to two decades is currently developing in the Pacific Ocean.

by Ian Thomas Ackerman
Sep 9 2015, 4:54am

Graphics courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology

The largest El Niño event in close to two decades is currently developing in the Pacific Ocean. In technical weather terms, this means an increase in Pacific water temperature is slowing down trade winds along the equator, affecting the way weather patters move around the globe. And for people in Australia, this could mean a hot summer with less rain.

As the Bureau of Meteorology reported, these are the most serious El Niño conditions since 1997. But what that means, and what we can expect, is kind of hazy. So we got in touch with climate expert and CSIRO chief research scientist, Dr Wenju Cai, to find out.

VICE: Hi Wenju, let's start with El Niño. What is it and what happens?
Dr Wenju Cai: The name was coined centuries ago. The Spanish called it "the little boy". I have no idea why, but the name stuck. You can't change the history.

As to what it is, it starts when the trade winds along the Equator weaken. These winds normally blow from east to west, taking the warm surface water with it. When the wind weakens, the warm water floods east. This creates a feedback loop with the warmer water in the east contributing to the weakening, or even reversal of the trade winds.

So why is this a concern?
El Niño tends to cause drought in Australia, along with the other western Pacific countries. This should extend Queensland's drought and also affect Western Australia.

In the eastern equatorial Pacific countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, El Niño tends to cause huge floods. The southwest US could actually also see storms and big floods, which is good as they've been in drought for many years.

Generally speaking, El Niño redistributes rainfall, which comes in extreme weather events: big floods, big droughts, bush fires, and heat waves.

Are you worried about this El Niño?
I worry for our farmers and I hope El Niño's impact will not be big. Farmers will be the most affected in Australia in an income sense. But Australia has been through El Niño and its opposite, La Niña, many times and we know how to deal with it.

The direction of trade winds when affected by El Niño

There have been a lot of comparisons made with the 1997 El Niño. What happened then?
In recent history we've had two huge El Niños. One of them in 1982-83, and the other one was in 1997-98. They had quite different impacts. In 1982-83, we had drought and increased heat waves with resulting bush fires. You may recall the Ash Wednesday fires.

In 1997 Australia was not as severely impacted and the rainfall was just about average. But Indonesia received months and months of wild fires across the country that caused huge amounts of haze and smoke. This affected tens of millions of people and caused tens of billions worth of economic damage.

How bad do you think this year's El Niño will be?
Although people are predicting it'll be as big as in 1997, I'm not so sure. We had a small warming event last year that means some of the heat has already been released into the atmosphere. Predicting the intensity of the event is quite difficult. But predicting the impact is even harder, because there are so many things that could change.

Is this part of climate change?
We can never say an individual event is due to climate change, because it's only an event. But what we can do is look at averages over a period and compare them to a world without climate change.

If we get a severe El Niño, when will it start?
We can't feel it in winter, so in terms of the heat we'll possibly see it in late spring. But, we don't really know because these things are embedded in the weather.

Will El Niño mean good beach weather this summer?
If it does cause more days of extreme hot weather, I'm sure we'll go to the beach more. It's a question of whether you enjoy 40-degree days or 35-degree days. Personally I enjoy 35-degree days on the beach, not 40.

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