On 4 July, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that El Niño conditions have developed in tropical Pacific Ocean and that the world should prepare for a surge in global temperatures. El Niño is a climate pattern that develops when a weakening of easterly winds results in warm surface ocean waters spreading across the Pacific Ocean, and while the condition lasts, it leads to erratic climatic patterns across the world. The WMO has said that El Niño conditions will develop through the year, and likely peak in 2024.
In light of soaring global temperatures due to global warming, an El Niño event can result in dangerous weather events across the world. After all, the hottest year ever recorded was in 2016, when the world was gripped by the last El Niño event. Climate scientists have been warning about this for the past few years of record high global temperatures and severe impacts of climate change, especially when these were happening while the opposite of the El Niño, the La Niña (a cooling climate pattern in the Pacific) was in effect for three successive years.
The onset of El Niño conditions affects different regions of the world in different ways. In South Asia, its major impact is felt in the form of increased heatwaves and erratic monsoon rainfall. While India has already faced, and is continuing to experience, both of these conditions, a deepening of El Niño conditions is a matter of great concern.
“The onset of El Niño will greatly increase the likelihood of breaking temperature records and triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and in the ocean," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a press statement. And while El Niño events usually don’t last for more than 9-12 months, its effects are widespread and intense. In May, the WMO had taken El Niño conditions into account when it had announced that at least one year between 2023-2027 will see global average temperatures breach the ‘safe’ margin of 1.5 degrees Celsius of heating above pre-industrial levels.
As it is, 3 July saw an unwelcome record. The average global temperature on that day was 17.01 degrees Celsius, the highest ever, surpassing the previous record set in 2016 (another El Niño year) of 16.92 degrees Celsius. The next day, the heat record was broken again, with the global average air temperature going up to 17.18 degrees Celsius. In India, according to a 2 July report in the Hindustan Times, large parts of Bengal and Bihar experienced a prolonged heatwave of 17 and 19 days respectively in June. This led to life threatening heat stress, with a heat index (a measurement of felt heat that combines surface temperature and relative humidity) of 50-60 degrees Celsius in both states.
In light of such life-threatening heat, the WMO’s announcement, and associated warning needs to be heeded. Taalas warned that the declaration is a signal to governments to prepare for the combined impact of climate change and El Niño conditions on health, ecosystems and economies. The heat is on.