El Nino, Global Warming, and Anomalous North American Winter Warmth

On RealClimate, Michael Mann has a good explanation of what is going on with North America’s unusual winter weather. He discusses what parts of the weather may be due to ENSO fluctuations and what part could be a signal of climate change.

US temp dif The pattern so far this winter (admittedly after only 1 month) looks … like a stronger version of what was observed last winter … . This poses the first obvious conundrum for the pure “El Nino” attribution of the current warmth: since we were actually in a (weak) La Nina (i.e., the opposite of ‘El Nino’) last winter, how is it that we can explain away the anomalous winter U.S. warmth so far this winter by ‘El Nino’ when anomalous winter warmth last year occured in its absence?

The second conundrum with this explanation is that, while El Nino typically does perturb the winter Northern Hemisphere jet stream in a way that favors anomalous warmth over much of the northern half of the U.S., the typical amplitude of the warming (see Figure below right) is about 1C (i.e., about 2F). The current anomaly is roughly five times as large as this. One therefore cannot sensibly argue that the current U.S. winter temperature anomalies are attributed entirely to the current moderate El Nino event.

Indeed, though the current pattern of winter U.S. warmth looks much more like the pattern predicted by climate models as a response to anthropogenic forcing (see Figure below left) than the typical ‘El Nino’ pattern, neither can one attribute this warmth to anthropogenic forcing. As we are fond of reminding our readers, one cannot attribute a specific meteorological event, an anomalous season, or even (as seems may be the case here, depending on the next 2 months) two anomalous seasons in a row, to climate change. Moreover, not even the most extreme scenario for the next century predicts temperature changes over North America as large as the anomalies witnessed this past month. But one can argue that the pattern of anomalous winter warmth seen last year, and so far this year, is in the direction of what the models predict.

In reality, the individual roles of deterministic factors such as El Nino, anthropogenic climate change, and of purely random factors (i.e. “weather”) in the pattern observed thusfar this winter cannot even in principle be ascertained. What we do know, however, is that both anthropogenic climate change and El Nino favor, in a statistical sense, warmer winters over large parts of the U.S. When these factors act constructively, as is the case this winter, warmer temperatures are certainly more likely. Both factors also favor warmer global mean surface temperatures (the warming is one or two tenths of a degree C for a moderate to strong El Nino). It is precisely for this reason that some scientists are already concluding, with some justification, that 2007 stands a good chance of being the warmest year on record for the globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *