The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has officially declared the onset of an El Niño climate pattern. This announcement comes in the wake of increasing temperatures in Australia’s southeast and an escalated risk of bushfires, fueling concerns for the coming months.
In response to the looming threat, authorities have put into effect total fire bans for the New South Wales south coast and the greater Sydney area. Simultaneously, parts of Queensland have been placed under bushfire evacuation orders, underscoring the urgency of the situation.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN’s weather agency, had already made the announcement of an El Niño’s beginning in July. Similarly, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had declared its commencement in June.
The BoM, however, chose to wait until now to make its declaration, explaining that there were previously no clear atmospheric signs to support it.
Australia is bracing itself for a distinct climatic shift this year. After enduring three years of significant rainfall and consistent flooding, 2023 is anticipated to be notably warm and dry during the southern hemisphere’s spring and summer seasons.
Karl Braganza, a forecaster with the BoM, highlighted the extreme weather conditions already evident in parts of Australia. He shared with the media that, “We’ve had an extended period of warm and dry weather to start spring.”
Yet, Braganza also pointed out the unpredictability associated with El Niño’s strength, emphasizing that its intensity doesn’t always correlate with the severity of rainfall deficiencies over Australia.
For BoM to announce an El Niño, sea surface temperatures in the Nino3 or Nino3.4 regions of the Pacific must rise by at least 0.8C above average. This is a stricter measure compared to the 0.5C threshold employed by the NOAA.
Another critical determinant is the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), which establishes a connection between changes in ocean temperature and atmospheric conditions. An SOI of -7 or lower is characteristic of El Niños. When the WMO made their announcement in July, the 90-day average SOI stood at -5.9. By September, this figure had dropped to -7.7, meeting the criteria for El Niño.
Historical data underscores the potentially severe consequences of El Niño. As per the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes of the Australian Research Council, major droughts in years like 1982, 1994, 2002, 2006, and 2015 coincided with El Niño patterns.
Additionally, nine out of the ten driest winter-spring seasons in eastern Australia occurred during El Niño years. Notably, the catastrophic 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfire, which led to massive devastation and the loss of 33 lives, was not during an El Niño year.
As one of the top exporters of wheat globally, Australia’s agricultural sector is potentially vulnerable. With winter wheat harvesting set to begin in November, a repeat of the 2002-03 drought, which saw a 50% decline in Australian wheat production and a 40% drop in winter crop output, could have severe economic repercussions.
As it stands, over 500 firefighters and emergency responders are combatting 61 active fires across New South Wales. 13 of these fires have not yet been contained. The severity of the situation is such that fire hazard ratings along the south coast have now been raised to “catastrophic,” representing the highest risk since the 2019-20 fire season, as noted by New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers.
As Australia faces this challenging period, all eyes are on its response and the measures it takes to mitigate the potential damages of the El Niño climate pattern.
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