Twice as many of nature's troublesome children, the El Niños, could arrive to cause havoc in the coming century.
Intense El Niño periods could double in frequency as the Earth's average temperature continues to rise, warned an international team of atmospheric scientists and oceanographers. The researchers forecast higher warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, relative to surrounding waters, based on 20 computerized models of the planet.
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The difference in temperatures could help spark an extreme El Niño and unleash flooding rains over the west coast of the Americas while parching Australia.
"We currently experience an unusually strong El Niño event every 20 years," said co-author, Agus Santoso of the University of New South Wales, in a press release. "Our research shows this will double to one event every 10 years."
El Niño and La Niña together, make up the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). A La Nina event involves abnormally cool water in the equatorial Pacific, while El Niño occurs when the water is warmer than average.
The recent results of the 20 computer models showed that surface temperatures in the equatorial eastern Pacific could rise above 28 degrees Celsius more frequently. At that temperature, an extreme El Niño event can be triggered, warned the simulators. Nature Climate Change Letters published the results of the research.
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Extreme El Niño events may cause deluges in the United States and Peru, yet leave the other side of the Pacific deathly dry. The 1982-1983 El Niño caused disastrous flooding in Peru. Yet the same event resulted in droughts in Indonesia and Australia.
The '82-'83 event also hurt marine life and people dependent upon that life. The warm surface waters of El Niño cut off the circulation of cold, nutrient rich water from deeper in the Pacific. The lack of deepwater nutrients knocked out the base of the marine food chain and thereby starved both fish and fishermen. During the 1997-1998 El Niño , torrential rains flooded California and caused disastrous mudslides (shown above).
Photo: El Niño storms caused the Rio Nido mud slides in northern California, damaging houses and cars, seen here on March, 1, 1998. Credit: Dave Gatley, FEMA News Photo, Wikimedia Commons