An El Niño event could seriously damage the denier narrative, unless…
Remember 1998? That was a very good year, as Old Blue Eyes might have said. It could well be the best, most important year ever if you are a climate change denier. In 1998 world-wide surface temperatures got so high that it took at least 7 more years of warming before climate change itself, acting alone, could produce the same result. Deniers got to call the period after 1998 a “climate change slowdown”, although the oceans continued to acquire heat unabated—just as if warming was still going on. As it was.
Visitors to climate comment threads on the internet—leastwise those threads that still allow climate deniers to misinform and mislead unchallenged—will have heard of 1998. Even if the date is not mentioned you might encounter statements like “the climate has not warmed in 16 years,” etc. Last year the same voices were saying 15 years. The year before, 14. Count back, that gets you 1998.
So what happened in 1998 that makes climate deniers go all giggly and soft inside? Climate scientists will tell you El Niño happened, a well-known and thoroughly documented part of ENSO, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation system in the South Pacific. When an El Niño is in operation, you see, global surface temperatures rise, not evenly, but measurably on a global scale. The El Niño in 1998 was the strongest on record, and—folded in with ongoing climate warming—made 1998 the warmest year since records began to be kept, warmest, that is, until 2005 or so. And then 2010. Unfortunately for the climate conversation, 2005, then 2010, merely edged out 1998, and left hardly a mark upon the public mind. Everybody’s so used to it being hot all the time, that it’s harder to notice records being broken, especially when they are being broken subtly, incrementally. Thus, the date 1998 sticks around, and the idea of a global warming pause is constructed upon it by the climate denier echo chamber.
Again unfortunately for the climate conversation, there has not been a strong El Niño since 1998. Instead, there have been an unusual number of La Niña systems—the other part of the Southern Oscillation, complementary to El Niño. La Niña systems are characterized by unusually cool surface waters in the Pacific. When La Niña happens the oceans, which absorb 80% of the excess heat from global warming anyway, temporarily speed up their heat intake. Heat is going to flow faster into cold water than warm, right? The vast amounts of heat flowing into the Pacific during a La Niña have the effect of cooling global surface temperatures, the opposite of the El Niño effect.
All of this heat flowing out of the ocean during El Niño, and flowing into the ocean during La Niña, whenever one or the other comes calling, has no real effect on underlying climate change, mind you. ENSO, in whatever manifestation, merely rearranges the heat; it doesn’t add or subtract from it. But since humans live on land rather than in the oceans, it definitely seems hotter when El Niño kicks in and cooler when La Niña rules.
ENSO explains 1998. It may even explain some of the apparent slowdown in surface warming which climate deniers like to fix on. That’s why deniers, even while invoking “natural cycles” when trying to explain away undeniable climate change, choose to ignore one of those natural cycles, ENSO, when discussing 1998.
But that could change in this next year. You see, scientists are now on an El Niño watch. May of this year was the warmest May since records began to be kept in 1880. June of this year was the warmest June. If those record-breaking months are a sign that a stable El Niño system is developing in the Pacific, then we may be setting up for another 1998. But this will be a 1998 with an additional 16 years of warming juicing it up, meaning that it will produce climate records that will make previous records irrelevant.
That will have the additional effect of requiring climate deniers to explain the astonishing heat. If climate change has stopped as they have so long claimed, why has the climate gone so crazy? Why is every heat record in sight being broken? Why are people all over the world dying from the heat?
The answer will come, “Why it’s El Niño, of course!”
Yes, after 16 years of ignoring it, the deniers will finally welcome El Niño home.
You read it here first.
About the hottest June:
About why it’s important to understand the effect of ENSO on the climate: