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El Niño event may push Earth towards its hottest year ever

Earth is on the verge of experiencing its hottest year yet. Our planet is currently experiencing the El Niño event of 2023-24, which is causing a rise in global temperatures. 

Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences predict a staggering 90% chance of record-breaking heat during this event.

El Niño events and global weather patterns 

El Niño is a recurring climate event where the central and eastern parts of the tropical Pacific Ocean experience warmer than usual surface temperatures. This is part of a larger cycle called El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which also has a cool phase called La Niña. El Niño occurs every few years, but the exact timing, strength, and duration can vary.

This phenomenon significantly impacts global weather patterns. Some regions, like the west coast of South America, might experience more rainfall than usual, which can lead to devastating floods. Other areas, like parts of Australia and Indonesia, might face droughts instead. 

El Niño’s influence goes beyond regional climates. It also affects global temperatures, making it an important factor in discussions about global warming and climate change.

Record-breaking temperatures are possible 

Scientists examined past El Niño events and how they impacted global temperatures. They then used this information and advanced computer modeling to predict how the ongoing El Niño event (from July 2023 to June 2024) might affect global and regional temperatures. 

The findings suggest that this El Niño event could lead to record-high average global temperatures. It is expected to be moderate or strong in intensity and significantly influence global weather patterns.

Regions with the greatest risk of impacts

The experts predict that several areas are likely to face extremely high surface air temperatures (SATs) that could be unlike anything seen before. These regions include the seas near Southeast Asia and South Africa, as well as Alaska, northern South America, and the tropical Atlantic Ocean. 

Notably, the model accurately captured the main patterns of surface air temperature changes globally, suggesting it effectively predicts how SATs will vary around the world.

Increase in wildfires

When temperatures rise due to events like El Niño, the consequences go far beyond simply feeling warm. These temperature increases can create a chain reaction of environmental and societal problems.

One major issue is wildfires. Hotter temperatures dry out plants and make them more likely to catch fire and burn intensely. These fires not only destroy forests and wildlife habitats, but they also release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, which further contributes to climate change. 

Places like Alaska and the Amazon are especially vulnerable to this, as studies have shown. Wildfires can also directly threaten people and property, and the smoke they produce can harm the health of millions.

Impact on marine life

Unusually hot periods in the ocean, called marine heatwaves, can also have devastating effects on sea life. These heat waves often cause mass die-offs, force animals to move to cooler areas, and lead to declines in fish populations. 

Global warming and El Niño can make these heat waves worse, leading to longer and more intense periods of stress on marine ecosystems.

Coral reefs are another victim of rising temperatures. Even a small increase in water temperature can cause coral bleaching, where coral expels the algae that lives inside it and turns white. This weakens the coral and makes it harder for it to grow and reproduce. It also disrupts the entire ecosystem that depends on the reef for food and shelter. El Niño events, which cause prolonged periods of warmer water, are often linked to coral bleaching.

Mitigation measures

Since extreme weather events are predicted to increase, communities need to become better prepared. This involves improving early warning systems, having evacuation plans in place, and building stronger infrastructure. 

Communities, especially those at higher risk, need education and resources to respond effectively to these disasters and minimize damage and loss of life.

Furthermore, to truly address climate change, we need to tackle its root causes. Policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions can slow down global warming. This involves switching to renewable energy sources, using energy more efficiently, and adopting sustainable land management practices. 

Policies can also encourage individuals, businesses, and governments to reduce their carbon footprint through measures like carbon pricing, subsidies for clean energy technologies, and regulations that limit emissions from industries.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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