Wednesday, May 14, 2014

El Nino Storms the World?

SUMMARY: Will the Pacific ocean change-up called El Nino startle the world? The latest update from NOAA, plus two scientific experts. It's not what you think. Ends with backyard farmer Luke Kimmel and his green bag of tips. Mike Halpert, Dr. Shayne McGregor, Luke Kimmel. Radio Ecoshock 140514

Will 2014 or 2015 will be hottest in recorded human history?

First we get the latest update on El Nino from Mike Halpert, Acting Director, of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, in College Park, Maryland.

Then I speak with ocean climate expert Dr. Shayne McGregor, and double check with Australia's Dr. Matthew England. It leads to a surprising conclusion.

But stick around for the final interview. We go from fear to action, with Luke Kimmel and the Leaf Ninjas. They are transforming a city, one backyard at a time, with success in urban agriculture and neo-green job creation. Luke has good tips for you.

Download/listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)


We start with the story of the day, El Nino, first with the latest report from NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They issued a new update on El Nino last Thursday.

Mike Halpert serves as the Acting Director, of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, in College Park, Maryland. He co-authored articles on climate variability and prediction. He's worked with ENSO and seasonal forecast teams. We get the latest from NOAA, plus Mike's predictions for North America.

Download or listen to this 10 minute update from Mike Halpert here.

El Nino source recommended by Mike Halpert.


For America, two good things could come from a strong El Nino. As you know, the entire state of California was declared in drought. Just this past week, the weather has been sizzling hot and dry there. Wild fires have broken out in several places in the southern part of the state, with tens of thousands of people evacuated. A couple of local listeners tell me they are struggling to keep their gardens alive.

If an El Nino comes this winter, as predicted, it should bring heavy rains to California, breaking the drought. That could also allow a full planting, and may eventually reduce food prices, or at least stop the rise we've seen this year. The bad news is these storms can dump terrific amounts of rain, leading to coastal erosion and mudslides, especially where fires have stripped off the protective ground cover.

Our second guest explains the rainy weather should extend over the whole southern United States, much of which has also been suffering from long-term drought. Again, that may be the start of rebuilding the cattle herd, which may limit the rise in beef prices about a year or two from now.

Shayne McGregor says a warmer and drier winter in the northern states usually accompanies an El Nino. There's no guarantees of that though, as we have no experience in how an El Nino mixes with the dreaded Polar Vortex, though to be caused by Jet Stream disturbances in these days of Arctic warming and disappearing sea ice. It's a huge experiment with two mega-systems and nobody knows how that will turn out.


Maybe you heard that a system called El Nino could further destabilize the weather, and ring up another record hot year globally. The last big El Nino was in 1998, one of the hottest years on Earth, and a time of storms and fire-storms in may parts of the world. The next may arrive soon.

Scientists have been working furiously to find how how this weather system works. They also want to predict when an El Nino is coming. In the heart of that hunt is Shayne McGregor. He's a Research Fellow at Australia's Climate Change Research Center, at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney.

Shayne tells us what an El Nino is, and how we can tell whether it will be a MAJOR El Nino, a minor one, or something in between. It makes a big difference. We had minor El Nino's in 2005 and 2010 for example, but the El Nino of 1997/98 practically set the world on fire, racking up record global heat.

You weren't taught any of this in school. And yet El Nino can determine your food prices, the local and national weather, the fisheries catch, success of agriculture in many parts of the world, and more. We talk over impacts for North America, South America, Europe, Africa, India, and Australia.

Tune into this Radio Ecoshock interview with scientists Shayne McGregor in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

Recent research on El Nino:

Late-twentieth-century emergence of the El Niño propagation asymmetry and future projections

Agus Santoso, Shayne McGregor, Fei-Fei Jin, Wenju Cai, Matthew H. England, Soon-Il An, Michael J. McPhaden & Eric Guilyardi

Nature 504, 126–130 (05 December 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12683 Published online 17 November 2013

This letter in Nature Climate Change expects more El Nino events as the climate warms.


Will El Nino finally be the weather disaster that jolts humans and their governments out of denial? There is plenty of fear, real and imagined, to go around.

In the May 7th edition of New Scientist magazine, under the headline "World is unprepared for major El Niño later this year" Michael Slezak writes, quote:

"The weather is preparing to go wild, and will wreak havoc and death around the globe later this year. An El Niño, a splurge of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, is coming. It will unleash floods in the Americas, while South-East Asia and Australia face drought. Yet little is being done to address these consequences."

He quotes Axel timmermann from the University of Hawaii that the tropical system is ready to fling a big El Nino at us. The last big El Nino, of 1997-98, he tells us, killed 20,000 people and cost $97 billion in damage.

Scientists and meteorologists, Slezak reports, are worried in private, but don't want to cause a public panic. The same New Scientist magazine also carries an editorial warning that overly cautious scientists may be endangering the world.

"The effects of the huge El Niño of the 1990s were all the worse because cautious forecasts didn’t allow people to prepare. It shouldn’t happen again ...A major El Niño is massing in the Pacific Ocean and is likely to cause cyclones, tornadoes, droughts, floods and sea level changes across the world.

Many leading scientists say the approaching El Niño looks similar in magnitude to the huge one that started in 1997 and went on to kill tens of thousands of people and cause tens of billions of dollars of damage. But you won't hear that sort of warning from official forecasters. They agree that an El Niño is likely, but are saying little about its potential strength

Also warning of bad things to come, is Joe Romm, the former Clinton energy advisor and honored parent of the Climate Progress blog, one of the top sources on the planet.

The headline of his article published May 8th is:

"El Niño Chances Jump To Near 80%. Add In Global Warming And We Face Record Heat."

Romm writes:

"If this El Niño does start fairly quickly and become quite strong, as many currently expect, then 2014 could well become the hottest year on record, and 2015 would likely break all previous global records."

I think he's right, but we have to be careful, about what we believe, and what we can prove so far with science. I thought, and still believe, that starting out with a hotter world, this next El Nino, whenever it comes, can create startling changes in the world. Let me explain that, and why I could be wrong.

By the way, here is another great article about El Nino from Robert Scribbler. Check out the comments below as well, I learned from those too.

And the National Geographic take on El Nino...


Common sense tells me that warming could make El Nino more powerful, more damaging. Why? Two reasons. First, the oceans are heating up, as incremental heat is transfered to the seas. (Plus: more of the sea is exposed to the sun, as the Arctic loses more sea ice for longer periods. But we'll call that a small effect for now.) El Nino, we know, is driven by hotter oceans.

Second, we know more water vapour is being held in the atmosphere with warming. There is at least 4 percent more water up there, some say 7 percent, than there was in 1970. El Nino is partly about the transfer of rains from the Western Pacific further East, possibly all the way to California and the West coast of South America. What would have been natural flooding may become super-charged extreme rainfall events with El Nino's help.

While all that's probably true, I've checked with several scientists, who are emphatic there is no science, so far, to show that climate change has made El Nino's stronger. Our guest Shayne McGregor, who is an expert in the field, says so.

I also phoned Dr. Matthew England, the Deputy Director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia. He's part of a team of scientists who recently published an important paper on El Nino.

Dr. England said recent science shows El Nino events will likely become more common as the world warms. This global weather disturbance may come every ten years, instead of every 20 years. But there is no evidence that global warming has made El Nino more intense than it was 1,000 or even 70,000 years ago.

My impression is we have to separate the idea of El Nino, the giant oceanic swing state, from things like hurricanes and other storms. El Nino is not a storm.

Matthew England said there is little doubt that hurricanes, known as tropical cyclones in the southern hemisphere, will become more violent as warming develops further over the next decades.

Again, the science doesn't say there will necessarily be MORE hurricanes or typhoons. But when they do come, the extra sea heat and water vapour will give us things like super typhoon Haiyan, which raked part of the Philippines flat in November 2013. Or nasty and expensive storms like Hurricane Sandy last year.

El Nino is just the opposite. We have science saying there will be more El Nino events, but no proof that they will be stronger.

Still, I'm sticking to my common sense view, apparently echoed by Joe Romm, that if we begin a warming event from an already warmed world, it will be worse. We'll have to wait and see, as the global experiment with the weather develops in the coming years.


I started out by saying El Nino, and the whole cycle in the Pacific called ENSO, the El Nino Southern Oscillation, is hard to grasp. That's because it is not a particular thing, but a complicated large-scale system of things. We humans have trouble with global cycles that only show up every decade or two. Our attention span is smaller and shorter than that.

What we can understand easily is this: the more prevalent partner to El Nino is La Nina, the girl-child in Spanish. La Nina with its cooler mix of ocean waters, has operated like a massive air-conditioner for the world. La Nina is one of the factors which masks the actual warming we are creating with excess greenhouse gas emissions.

With El Nino, we expect the air-conditioner will be run in reverse, releasing some of the heat built up in the ocean. We may, as Joe Romm warns, experience the heat we are creating daily. It could be a record hot year globally in 2015 or even this year, if El Nino shows up in full strength. It's like an audition for the future.

That doesn't necessarily mean you won't be cold next winter. El Nino has been known for milder winters in the northern hemisphere. But there are other factors at work, another huge change in the planetary weather system, due to abnormal heating in the Arctic. The Jet Stream has been altered, scientists tell us, which may have brought the stalled Polar Vortex of cold air over most of North America last winter.

That Jet Stream change has happened in the southern hemisphere as well, Matthew England told me. Winds that used to bring rain to Australia have moved further south toward the South Pole. They may never return in thousands of years. That is why the major city of Perth, Australia had to spend 2 billion dollars on a desalinization plant, to get enough water to survive as a city. The same may be coming for California.

We have no idea how the changed jet stream will interact with El Nino. That's what happens when we mess with global-scale climate systems. The weather becomes a crap shoot, and the odds are against us.

I know many of you are expecting, not hoping for, but expecting, some major sign of climate change that will finally push the public into demanding action. Will it be El Nino this year or next? I doubt it. There will be plenty of flashy weather porn reported by the news. Maybe ten or thirty thousand people will die. If they are not Americans or Europeans, we haven't cared much. Even when thirty thousand Europeans died in the heat wave of 2003, nobody marched in the streets protesting inaction on fossil fuels.

The El Nino of 1997/98 was a disaster for the atmosphere. It occurred at a time when farmers and corporations in Indonesia were clearing and burning forests on a grand scale for palm oil plantations and simple logging. Giant areas of peat were exposed, dried, and burned.

Suddenly, Indonesia, hardly a major industrial country, vaulted up to third place among global carbon emitters. The peat fires buried Asia in smoke, and pumped a giant burst of carbon into the atmosphere. All that carbon is still there. It pushes down the accelerator on warming. But the public hardly knows about it. Ask around. They don't know.

El Nino will add to the background of worry. It will change some minds. But if you are counting on this boy-child, literally the Christ child in Spanish, as a turning point to save the world... don't.

- Alex


With an ear for solutions, Radio Ecoshock continues our long-running series on home permaculture and backyard gardening. Next we visit Calgary Canada, which just hit national news for their snowfall in May. Luke Kimmel is one of the "Leaf Ninjas" fostering green jobs and local food there.

Luke and Leaf Ninjas are in Calgary, Canada. That western prairie city, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, just went through a legendary long winter. It snowed in May!!

During the winter, there are melts occasionally from the famous warm winds called the "Chinook". But even that break can be a problem for plants exposed to the next sub-zero cold snap. I haven't even mentioned the infamous hail storms that has Calgary gardeners operating a Twitter alert service to cover up. How the heck can you grow food in Calgary?

Luke has tips that can help any cold country gardener. Like where to plant to get the most, and ways to use snow to protect perennials and trees during the winter extremes.

But we also talk about how young people (or anyone!) can create their own jobs, doing the right thing for the planet and local food. This group started by getting involved locally, and volunteering as much as they could, learning and making connections along the way. For some bigger plantings and projects, the local community organizes a "permablitz". Folks show up, spend a day planting, with breaks for workshops, and food provided by the home owner. A lot gets done fast.

Among their teachers in the ways of permaculture are Rob and Michelle Avis of The Verge. I've talked with Rob's students, and they are glowing with positive energy and hands-on knowledge of how to design local food that works with nature, rather than against it. Once a permaculture yard or lot is established, it's also less work to maintain, even as it feeds and pleasures you.

To be honest, Calgary is known as the oil capital of Canada. It's got lots of offices for Tar Sands corporations. It's a city of giant pickup trucks. But Calgarians just elected Canada's first Muslim Mayor, and has a surprisingly vibrant alternative community. Why is that?

Luke has a quick answer: "closest greenies". There are plenty of people working at jobs because they feel they must, who still want the security, better taste and nutrition of local food. They hire the Leaf Ninjas.

We talk through the whole process of setting up a permaculture yard. (Did you know you can eat the leaves of a Hosta plant?) Luke also explains "SPIN" farming, Small Plot Intensive growing.

Listen to this 20 minute interview with Luke Kimmel in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

The Leaf Ninja web site is here.


On Radio Ecoshock, we broadcast through many college stations. As part of my outreach to the younger generation who will live through climate change, I'm going to announce a competition to write modern music about climate change. Write me: radio//at// for details.

Meanwhile, here's a short tune I wrote last week, while toiling away at this program. It's called Heal Me. You can listen again, or download my music and this program, all on the Radio Ecoshock Soundcloud page. It's catching on fast. Check it out.

I'm Alex. Thank your for listening, and caring about your world.

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