El Nino 2014: Historic?

The weatherologists have more or less stopped saying there might be an El Niño this year. Now they are saying there will be an El Niño, and they are starting to consider how strong it will be. Well, actually, they've stopped doing that too and are now talking about whether it will be a mondo-El Niño or a mondo-mondo-El Niño.

Here is a newly released video by Peter Sinclair and the Yale Climate Forum about the coming El Niño:

I have a prediction to make. First a bit of background.

You know about the so-called "hiatus" in global warming, because every Tea Partier with a mouth is yammering about it. (See this for a nice response to Sean Hannity's most recent yammering.) There is a slowing down of the increase of what we call "surface temperatures" over the last several years. However, there are at least two major categories of cause to consider when thinking about this slowdown. First, "surface temperatures" do not reflect the totality of global warming. Surface temperature is a summary of several important parts of the planet, mainly the lower part of the atmosphere and the very top layer of the ocean. The vast majority of the heat added to the system by increasing CO2 in the atmosphere actually goes somewhere else; it goes into the oceans. I've talked about this problem of measurement here and here. So, we expect that actual "global warming" (the total warming of the Earth because of added CO2) to be one thing, and "surface temperatures" to reflect but not perfectly track that. (Having said that the term "Global Warming" usually refers just to surface temperatures, a terminological glitch, in my opinion, that arises from the historic uses of the terms among scientists.)

The second feature of the so called hiatus, aka #FauxPause, is that even within that part of the planetary system that is measured and summarized as "surface temperature" there are biases. Much of interior Africa and huge regions of the poles are not as accurately measured, or are simply not included in the squiggle that we use to represent global warming. Recent analysis, however, has estimated the degree and direction of that bias, and it turns out that the bias is towards the negative -- we have been missing heat. When you put that heat back into the squiggle, the so-called hiatus gets less hiatusy.

What does all this have to do with El Niño? And my prediction? Here's the thing. El Niño is part of a larger ongoing continuous climatological phenomenon referred to as ENSO. This is a cyclic (but not periodic) phenomenon having to do with surface heat being plowed into the deeper ocean for a period of time then coming out later. When the heat comes out, the "surface temperatures" go up. If we have the mondo-, or especially the mondo-mondo- El Niño people are expecting, a whopping pile of heat that has been hiding in the Pacific Ocean is going to spring from the sea and heat up the air. Expect heat.

In Anthropology we have a concept called the "Nature-Nurture Dichotomy." You know what this is because you have made references to it frequently in day to day life. Nature is learned, enculturated, received behavior or personality or whatever. If you water your plants more or less they grow more or less. If we raise our children to be more or less violent, we may get a society that is more or less violent. That sort of thing. Nature is the built in part. A gene causes men to be more violent than women, or women to be more nurturing than men. The "men are from Mars" and "women are from Venus" thing is a statement -- unsupported by science and way oversimplified to the extent of being stupid and useless, I quickly add -- about nature. According to the Nature-Nurture dichotomy model, we, our plants, other living things, can be described as the outcome of innate (genetic) causes and external, learned or environmental causes. Indeed, according to this framework, we can characterize a feature of a person or a plant or whatever as X percent nature and Y percent nurture, adding up to 100%.

The nature-nurture dichotomy is a falsehood. It is wrong. It is incorrect. It is not supported by the data. This is not to say that there are not "built in" features of living systems and "environmental" features of living systems. But, the stark distinction between the two, the lack of consideration of interaction between the two, and the simplified partitioning of causality to add up to 100% between the two are all demonstrably wrong. Not only are those things wrong, but Nature-Nurture dichotomy thinking is misleading.

What does this have to do with El Niño and global warming and stuff?

If global warming was not happening, the surface temperature measurements would look like a flat squiggle over time, going up and down but averaging out over just a few years or a decade or two. There are many "natural" features of the climate system that act like this, such as the strength of the sun or the effects on surface temperatures of aerosols (i.e. volcanic dust). ENSO is such a thing, a natural squiggling of effects on surface temperatures.

Human release of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere is also a squiggle, potentially varying from year to year, but the effects of CO2 release have been to increase the baseline temperature over time.

The following graph is a made up version of this. The squiggles in the lower part of the graph represent a set of natural factors that influence the final outcome; they vary with their own up and down pattern. Just above that is a single upward tending variable. The line in the topmost part of the graph is the sum of all of these.


When temperatures started to flatten out over the last few years (they did not decrease, and they kept rising, but at a slower rate) climate change denialists made the claim that this was because anthropogenic global warming (represented by that middle, upward trending line in the made up graph) wasn't real. Climate scientists argued that there were two or three reasons the graph flattened out a bit. One of those reasons is the simple, overarching claim that natural variation (like ENSO) makes the graph squiggle up and down independently of anthropogenic global warming. The climate scientists were correct, the science denialists were wrong, of course.

Now, with ENSO about to produce an El Niño, we are probably going to see the squiggle that is the sum of all squiggles squiggle upward, perhaps rather dramatically. The heat that has been hiding in the ocean will return to the "surface" (lower atmosphere and top layer of the oceans).

I predict that denialists will claim that this is not global warming, but rather, natural variation, so therefore global warming is not real.

The first part of that is sort of true, but if so, it was ALSO TRUE that the flattening out of the overall surface temperature curve, and much or all of the squiggle in that line over many decades, is explained by natural variation.

In other words, denialists will have ended up saying: "The pause is true because AGW is not true. The upward swing in 2014/5 is not real because is is natural."

Climate scientists will say "The pause was an artifact of the natural process of heat plowing into the ocean and the resurgence of surface temperatures in 2014/5 is due to the natural process of that heat coming back to the surface, all of this playing out on a generally upward trending surface temperature graph."

See the difference?

I'd like to add, taking the aforementioned anthropological perspective, that the nature-nurture (natural/anthropogenic) dichotomy is actually present in this argument and mucking it up a bit. The resurgence in temperature increase we are likely to see over the next year or so is not a "natural" occurrence in that the actual heat is "natural." Some of that heat, we humans made. So you can't really call it natural variation. This is more of a linguistic point than anything else, because the natural variations of which we speak are "variations" more than they are "natural" or "not natural." And the science of climate is, like science in general, all about variation. In the end, the trend of temperature change over the last half of the 20th century up to the present and for decades to come is an increase (a kind of variation) pretty much all caused by human release of CO2 and related effects. In the end, the squiggly nature of the line that represents that trend will end up being a combination of natural features and changes in the human effect. This has been true for decades, it is true right now, and it will continue to be true for a long time.


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Nature is learned, enculturated, received behavior or personality or whatever.

Greg, is this a typo?

An important point not stated in the post: 1998, the year the "global warming has stopped" crowd likes to cite in their comparisons, was the year of the last large El Niño event. Now, climate science isn't my specialty, so for all I know that could be a coincidence. But that's not the way I would bet.

Via Weather Underground, I hear that the southern plains states (KS, OK, and north/west TX) have been having a record heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 100F in many locations (unusual, and in some locations unprecedented, for early May). Contrast with the recent winter in eastern North America, which would have been unremarkable 20 years ago (despite the duration of the cold, not that many daily temperature records were broken, and few if any monthly records). Have you been seeing unusually warm weather in Minnesota in the past week? The heat hasn't reached New England yet (which suits me fine, because I have been doing my heavy duty spring gardening chores). I'm not looking forward to summer heat.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 08 May 2014 #permalink

Here in the south we are having plenty of heat, just not like the plains. On the other hand it seems to my non-empirical intuition has left me with the opinion that May temperatures here have been hot in most years since the 80s. So maybe this is the new normal.

By Charles P Redwine (not verified) on 08 May 2014 #permalink

I will look forward to coming back here at the end of 2014 and see how your predictions pan out.

In other words, denialists will have ended up saying: “The pause is true because AGW is not true. The upward swing in 2014/5 is not real because is is natural.”

And, if the El Niño results in an undeniably hottest year ever, pretty soon they'll be proclaiming, “No warming since...”

Because of their record-breaking potential we tend to focus on El Niños, but, as the graph shown in the link below indicates, the trend in La Niñas is equally interesting. The difference between El Niño and La Niña years appears to be decreasing, as is the difference between La Niña years and the mean. It may be too much to conclude that this is further evidence of the dominance of the anthropogenic contribution, but – well, but what?

April in little Denmark was the fourth warmest on record.

By cosmicomics (not verified) on 08 May 2014 #permalink

I'm puzzled by how the AGW story evolves, initially it was based on the hockey-stick of surface temperatures, now we must not look at surface temperature, until ALL the "missing heat" comes back up from a small area of the ocean.

On the other hand, there is climate science and then there is the ducking and diving version of it found on the blogosphere. I prefer to look only at the data and hum a tune when someone claims to understand it.

Why do you suggest that we don't look at surface temperatures? That would be unproductive.

In 1997/98 we had floods, record rain and snowfall here in California. While I don't wish harm to come to those who have built homes in the floodplains I am looking forward to an above normal precipitation year and snowpack in the Sierra. We desperately need it.

That being said, this regimen of extreme climate, drought followed by flood could get really old, really fast. However, it seems to be the new normal.

Greg, another well-written post. I learned something today, and that means it's a good day!

One more, thing. I'd like to give you a "shout out" next week on my podcast. How do you pronounce your last name, "LAH-den" or "LAY-den"?

By Blue Streak Sc… (not verified) on 09 May 2014 #permalink

Blue-streak: Thanks, and yes, it seems to be the new normal. At least until some other newer normal comes along...

Laden is LAY-den as in Laden with happiness. Or, as my friend Ron used to say back when we were teenagers, "Laden, as in I got laid in Paris." Though I don't think he'd ever been to Paris.

NOT LAHden, as in Osama bin!