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Brace Yourselves, We Are On Course To Imminently Smash Yet More Temperature Records
The El Niño & global warming-driven ocean heatwaves are set to make the next decade hell.
Last week, we saw global average temperature records set for three days in a row. Climate scientists think it was the hottest week planet Earth has experienced for over 125,000 years, meaning no human has ever lived on such a sweltering world. The cause of this sudden intense heat is a double gut punch of human-driven climate change and El Niño. While the days since have cooled off, we are far from reaching the peak. Climate scientists are predicting yet more record-setting global temperatures over the coming months and years, and their impact will be devastating. But, there may be a positive side to this global catastrophe.
Let’s start with what El Niño actually is. El Niño and La Niña are two sides of a natural oscillating climate system which affects the temperature of the Pacific Ocean. During La Niña, cold water builds up along the equator in the Pacific, and during El Niño, the opposite occurs, as the Pacific dramatically heats up. As the Pacific is so damn massive, these temperature swings profoundly affect the entire globe’s climate and its weather patterns, heating it up during El Niño and cooling it down during La Niña.
The last La Niña cycle ended last year, and this year we have seen one of the most potent El Niño on record start to kick in. In fact, thanks to both climate change and El Niño, ocean surface temperatures worldwide are now far higher than anything our climate models predicted. Normally, El Niños only heat around 10% of the Pacific, but this one is so off-the-charts powerful that 50% of the Pacific is dramatically heating up.
But we can’t blame this heat on the El Niño. A report by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service stated that the record-breaking global heat started before El Niño actually got going, and last year, during a colder La Niña, was still one of the hottest years on record. This means we are the ones to blame, as human-driven climate change is the leading cause of this insane heat; El Niño is just helping to tip it over the edge.
We are literally in uncharted territory, and El Niño has only just started and bearly had a chance to get going. The UN’s World Meteorological Organization predicts that it could last another five years, with record temperatures and global impacts being felt well into next year and beyond. The World Meteorological Organization’s director of climate services, Christopher Hewitt, said: “This is worrying news for the planet.” Which is putting it mildly.
Why? Well, a very hot ocean wreaks havoc with global climate and weather patterns. Water contains far more energy per degree of temperature (also known as specific heat capacity), and the volume of water being heated in the Pacific is truly gigantic, meaning the amount of energy being stored is utterly vast. Now air, on the other hand, holds very little energy per degree of temperature. This means the Pacific will struggle to dissipate its heat quickly enough into the air, keeping it baking hot for years to come. But it also means that it will dramatically heat the atmosphere, and other oceans, for years as this water tries to cool.
This is why we are seeing record-breaking global average temperatures, which are measured by ambient atmospheric temperature, as not only is the atmosphere being heated by our greenhouse gases, but also from the Pacific.
Now, you might be thinking, “So what if it gets warmer, it can’t do that much damage.” Well, I’m here to tell you that thanks to our climate crimes and El Niño, the next decade will be a s**t-show. Let me explain.
Let’s start off with the obvious, marine heatwaves. Like terrestrial flora and fauna, marine creatures and algae struggle when things get too hot, but the impact of marine heat waves is arguably greater than that on land. Hot ocean water holds less oxygen, suffocating many species. Essential currents slow, depriving areas of essential nutrients and starving out entire ecosystems. They can also simply not survive the heat and perish from heat exhaustion. As such, this El Niño is set to decimate fish stocks worldwide. More than 3 billion people currently rely on thriving fish stocks to meet their basic nutritional needs, so these few years of extreme ocean heat could cause widespread malnutrition.
Then there is the extreme weather caused by El Niño. As the Pacific tries to cool, it pumps vast amounts of energy into the atmosphere; this energy has nowhere to go and builds to form powerful hurricanes and cyclones. So over the next few years, we can expect to see far more frequent, more potent and longer-lasting storms, hurricanes and cyclones. This increased atmospheric energy will also dramatically increase how much moisture the atmosphere can hold. This will cause catastrophic floods similar to those currently being felt in New York. But, counterintuitively, this will also cause extensive droughts and heatwaves, as it will block rains from reaching their usual location.
Needless to say, the damage from these will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, people will become homeless, livelihoods will be lost, and agriculture will struggle to thrive, threatening even developed nations’ food security. One of the most pressing issues is heat waves. Last year, before El Niño, nearly 62,000 people died from heat-related issues in Europe alone; that figure will likely skyrocket over the coming years. So as the heat bites, we could see cataclysmic death tolls, the quality of life of many dropping dramatically, and even national and international tensions rising.
These damages will be felt long after this El Niño has ended though. A recent study found a strong correlation between El Niño and slowed economic growth. The researchers saw that the global economy bled $4.1 trillion and $5.7 trillion during the 1982–83 and 1997–98 El Niño events, respectively, for five years after the El Niño ended. In fact, these saw economic struggles linked to El Niño for up to 14 years after they had ended!
These researchers predicted that the 2023 El Niño could hold back the global economy by as much as $3 trillion by the year 2029. However, this study was conducted before we truly knew how massive this El Niño was, so this is likely a vast underestimation. This is horrific news for the global economy, as rampant inflation, worldwide sky-high national debt and looming recessions are already threatening the global economy. So, El Niño could tip us into a global financial crisis like we have never seen before that could last a decade, if not more.
Now, at the beginning of this article, I promised you a silver lining. Something that would make all of this damage, death and destruction worthwhile. Sadly, I don’t think I can deliver on that promise, but there is one smidgen of hope here.
This El Niño is giving us a glimpse at the near future. It shows us what our climate will be like in a decade or two and how quickly climate and ecological degradation can happen. It will also demonstrate how interlinked our quality of life and financial systems are to the globe’s ecosystems and climate. This might be the wake-up call our governments need to take the drastic action needed to stop the climate apocalypse.
Is that worth all the death and destruction to come? I don’t know. But we, as voting citizens in democratic societies, have to heed the warning of this El Niño and ensure our governments understand we don’t want this to become the new normal.
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