UN warns: risk of record heat

08 May, 2023

Get ready – the little guy is coming.

The UN’s call is about El Niño, a powerful weather phenomenon that can have devastating effects on an already warm planet.

Two siblings rule the Pacific and make meteorologists keep an extra eye on observations and forecast models. In recent years, the weather phenomenon La Niña (the girl in Spanish) has had a cooling effect on the Earth’s climate. But soon the brother El Niño (the baby boy) is expected to color the temperature maps red, which gossips that a warmer phase awaits.

-El Niño is a large-scale phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which involves both winds and sea surface temperatures and which has a major impact on the weather in the area, says Erik Kjellström, professor of climatology at SMHI.

The effects will be great and with global warming there is a risk that many of them will become worse and more pronounced. It makes one look at this with concern in a way, even though it is a natural phenomenon.


Right now, neutral conditions prevail in the Pacific Ocean, but the probability of El Niño developing later this year is increasing, according to a forecast from the UN Meteorological Organization WMO. The WMO estimates the probability of a transition to El Niño in May–July to be 60 percent, around 70 percent June–August and 80 percent July–September.

No one knows how intense or long-lasting the weather phenomenon will be this time.

-Some years it’s stronger and other years it’s weaker conditions, says Kjellström.

El Niño is associated with increased heat, drought or precipitation. It is mainly countries in the Pacific Ocean that are affected, above all in Oceania, Indonesia and South America, but also parts of North America and more distant areas across Asia and Africa.

In Europe, the signals are significantly weaker and the impact is not as clear. From what we know today, it is not generally possible to say whether it will be warmer or colder in Scandinavia as a result of El Niño or La Niña.

During normal conditions, the trade winds from the west coast of South America push the surface water west towards Indonesia and Australia. Graphics; Johan Hallnäs/TT

Heat record?

However, there is a clear connection to the global average temperature.

The last eight years are the warmest on record – despite La Niña acting as a temporary brake on the global temperature increase for several years. Now there is a risk of new record highs, states WMO Director Petteri Taalas and urges the world to prepare for the arrival of the weather phenomenon.

“The development of an El Niño will most likely lead to a new peak in global warming and increase the risk of record temperatures,” he writes.

Even the EU’s climate change service Copernicus considers it too likely that 2023 or 2024 could become the warmest year measured globally. The current record high was set in 2016, which the WMO explains is a double whammy of El Niño and continued human emissions of greenhouse gases.

The global average temperature is already 1.1 degrees higher than in pre-industrial times. Despite promises to the contrary by most of the world’s countries, global carbon dioxide emissions continued to rise last year, fueling warming.

Near the edge

With El Niño in play, temperatures could get another boost.

-A year with a very strong El Niño, the global average temperature can increase by 0.1 or 0.2 degrees, says Kjellström.

To avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change, the world has agreed to try to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. That limit in the Paris Agreement is not far away, notes Kjellström.

It is likely that the first time we will exceed 1.5 degrees will be in an El Niño year, although it will not be this time.

Sofia Eriksson/TT

El Niño is a weather phenomenon that occurs every two to seven years. Graphics; Johan Hallnäs/TT

Sofia Eriksson/TT

El Niño and La Niña are phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather cycle. El Niño warms the surface water in the eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean while La Niña cools it.

El Niño returns on average every two to seven years and usually lasts nine to twelve months. The climax often occurs around Christmas, hence the name El Niño (the boy).

El Niño effects such as increased rainfall typically affect parts of southern South America, the southern United States, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia, while severe drought may occur over Australia, Indonesia, and parts of southern Asia.

The last time the world experienced El Niño was in 2018–2019.

Source: WMO, SMHI

Text; Sofia Eriksson/TT
Foto; Brontë Wittpenn/AP/TT
Grafik; Johan Hallnäs/TT

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