Climate scientists have been very careful about connecting manmade global warming to extreme weather events, but they're not hedging this time:
The world's most devastating global weather phenomenon – the weather events associated with "El Niño" – will double in frequency to once a decade if global warming remains unchecked, according to what scientists believe is a major step forward in the understanding of such events.
The last extreme El Niño, in 1997-98, resulted in the hottest year on record, and the accompanying floods, cyclones, droughts and wildfires killed an estimated 23,000 people and caused £21bn-£28bn in damage, particularly to food production. But until now scientists have been unable to agree how climate change will affect the frequency of extreme El Niños.
A study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, concludes that in stark contrast to earlier work, the current rate of carbon emissions would mean twice as many extreme El Niños over the next 100 years, with profound socioeconomic consequences.
"This is a highly unexpected consequence of global warming," said Professor Mat Collins of the University of Exeter, part of the research team. "Previously we had thought that El Niño would be unaffected by climate change. Tropical rainfall conditions such as those experienced in extreme El Niños have a dramatic influence on the world […] the impact therefore on mankind is substantial."
Another team member, Professor Eric Guilyardi of the University of Reading, said: "This research is the first comprehensive examination of the issue to produce robust and convincing results about extreme El Niños."
El Niños begin with an unusual warming of the sea surface at the tropics of the eastern Pacific and spread to affect many parts of the world. Previous attempts to ascertain the effect of climate change were inconclusive, as different computer climate models produced conflicting results.
By focusing on those models known to best represent the changes in temperature, currents and clouds that occur in the real world, the researchers were able to produce a clear result for the first time. The work showed that climate change is most likely to warm the tropical Pacific waters that drive El Niño more rapidly than surrounding regions, meaning that extreme events would become twice as common.
Professor Myles Allen, a climate modelling expert at the University of Oxford who is not involved in the work, said: "It is a very reasonable paper and a very sensible approach. In the past people said models disagreed on changes to El Niño, but a lot of models simulated El Niño very badly."