Possible Strongest El Nino on Record Gets Another Kick From Upper Ocean Heat

For the month of July, El Nino crossed solidly into strong event thresholds. Temperatures in the key indicator Nino 3.4 region have continued to rise overall, hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius above average during the first week of the month, then hitting +1.7 and +1.6 C during the second and third weeks. Model consensus continues to show the heat building — hitting around +2.1 C in the average by October, November and December.


(A NOAA comparison shows the 1997-1998 El Nino at peak heat during November of 1997 [left frame]. The right frame image shows the 2014-2016 El Nino during its mid July ramp-up. Note the hot blob of water off the US West Coast in the July 2015 image. Heat in this region tends to drive an atmospheric feedback that continues to push more warm water into the Eastern and Central Equatorial Pacific. Note that, due to this and other factors, the 2014-2016 will likely also hit a peak intensity during October or November. An intensity that could exceed the monster 1997-1998 El Nino event. Image source: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.)

So much warming in this region of the Pacific would be enough to make the 2014-2016 El Nino nearly as strong as the 1997-1998 event. But, ominously, a few of our more trusted models show temperatures peaking out at around +3 C for the Nino 3.4 zone. A level that would exceed all previous thresholds for El Nino strength. It’s the kind of heat pulse that would re-write the record books for strong El Ninos. The kind that would enable global surface air temperatures — under the constant and building pressure of an excessive human greenhouse gas emission — to hit new and troubling record highs over the coming months.

For such a record event to happen, there needs to be a powerful plug of heat just beneath the ocean surface. It needs to back up into the Central Pacific and it needs to be intense enough to deliver the kind of heat energy predicted. And all indications are that the available heat energy for this potentially record event on the way.

A Massive Plug of Upper Ocean Heat

Back in March one of the strongest westerly wind outbreaks ever to occur in the Western Pacific sent a powerful wave of heat rippling out beneath the broadest section of equatorial ocean water in the world. Hot water, driven to near record temperatures by a human-forced warming of the atmosphere and ocean system spread out just below the surface and began to up-well — contacting the airs just off the West Coast of South America.


(Upper ocean heat is again ramping above the 1.8 C positive anomaly mark for the Equatorial Pacific. A sign that more surface warming is likely on the way. Image source: NOAA CPC.)

At that time, the NOAA measure of heat accumulated in the upper 400 meters of the Equatorial Pacific, showed temperatures had rocketed to 1.8 degrees Celsius above average for the entire basin. Since then, a series of west wind outbreaks have continued to pile abnormally warm water into the upper ocean environment — keeping temperatures in the range of 1.1 to 1.8 C above average.

Now, due to a very long duration westerly wind outbreak that began during late June and has extended for more than a month, upper ocean heat content is again on the rise. As of last week, it had rocketed again to 1.8 degrees Celsius above average for the basin. And signs indicated there was at least a moderate potential for continued strengthening of this heat pulse. Observational data and GFS model runs show a continuing westerly wind flow over the Western Pacific. Winds circling around two lows parallel to one another and straddling the Equator near 170 East are predicted to increase to near 25 to 35 mph over the next few days. It’s the most recent surge in this very long duration westerly wind outbreak. One that will likely only continue to drive more heat into the upper ocean environment.

Kelvin Wave

(A strong Kelvin Wave is now backing more and more heat into the Nino 3.4 zone. In watching the progress of upper ocean heat in this visualization, we could be witnessing the final stages of an event that will go down in the record books. Image source: NOAA CPC)

Already, we can see the strong, warm Kelvin Wave — which has been a persistent feature since mid March — becoming reinvigorated. The Kelvin Wave is now rebounding away from coastal South America even as its warm water zones expand. Its hottest waters are heading more toward mid Ocean. A trend that, if forecast models prove correct, will deliver serious heat to the middle Pacific sea surface region this Fall.

It’s a massive delivery of heat that we can now watch in slow motion. One that could now be in the process of delivering one of the strongest, if not the strongest El Nino in the history of record keeping for this ocean warming event.


NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory


NOAA’s Weekly El Nino Report

Leave a comment


  1. Cnawan Fahey

     /  July 27, 2015

    A global climate thrown out of balance by anthropogenic forcing does not change in a linear progression, but there are ebbs and flows in the anomolies, with periodic episodes in which multiple effects combine into cumulative events that shatter the old parameters…and pave the way to “new normals”. Or something like that.

  2. Cnawan Fahey

     /  July 27, 2015

    Very scary to ponder what knock-on effects this potentially “off-the charts” El Nino could precipitate. In past strong El Ninos, what was their effect upon the Arctic?

    • Mblanc

       /  July 28, 2015

      I think the smart money is on a big artic melt next summer. If my limited understanding is correct, this is partly based on the artic response to the last big El Nino, in 1998.

      • Cnawan Fahey

         /  July 28, 2015

        I was afreaid of that…

      • El Niño year +2 has tended to be the strongest melt signal recently. Though El Niño year and El Niño year +1 have tended to show losses when compared to prior years.

      • jyyh

         /  July 29, 2015

        1/2 a year for tropics, one year for those midlatitudes not directly affected, and one and a half to two for polar areas, seems to be the case.

      • Andrew Dodds

         /  July 29, 2015

        I’m not sure..

        My personal hypothesis is that the big Arctic sea ice retreat (2005-12 ish) coincided with a period where the surface temperature record – which is based on data outside the Arctic, mainly , and for obvious reasons – showed an apparently lower rate of warming. Now the non-Arctic temperatures are shooting up, the sea ice retreat slows.

        Just my personal hypothesis, the warming is being partitioned differently. Won’t affect the end result.

  3. Stephen

     /  July 27, 2015

    This may be a dumb question but I seem to remember that one of the problems of El Nino was that fish stocks would move north to escape the warm water and seek cooler water presenting a bad fishing season for the Ecuadoran and Peruvian fishing industry. Do you have any thoughts as to how far the fish migrated and their plight moving into warming northern waters this year? Viewing the image on the right, it doesn’t look good.

    • Andy in SD

       /  July 28, 2015

      Sardines head away from the South American Pacific coast during El Ninos due to the heat as you mention. That is one piece of historical anecdotal evidence that lead to the subject of El Nino being studied.

      • labmonkey2

         /  July 28, 2015

        Salmon in the Columbia River are having a tough time, too. 😦

        As we witness the wanton destruction of our own habitat, by our OWN hands no less, I am at first sad…then as I ponder how we got here, I GET MAD. Then all I can do is shrug my shoulders and blame human nature as it seems we cannot even get out of our own way and address the problem. I do hope, like Robert, that we can overcome our differences and formulate a plan that satisfies as many players as possible. We shall see.

        • That’s a rough report, LabMonkey. And as everyone out west can attest, this 2-year lead up to El Niño there has brought some extraordinary weather fueled by the added ghg heat. That zone has born the brunt of our now 1 C warming for quite some time. And the effect is to put it on the leading edge of climate impacts. Anyone thinking a 1-2 C above 1880s world is safe should take a good hard look at the massive blow to resources, resiliency, and wildlife we’ve seen in that region.

  4. Looks like they’d need to travel about as far afield as they did during the 1997-1998 event. At least there are places to go in SE PAC. All of NE PAC is a hot zone. Fish living in that region will have a much harder time.

  5. Fascinating. I can’t help but hope we won’t get 8 feet of snow in a few weeks again this year.

  6. climatehawk1

     /  July 27, 2015

    Tweet scheduled.

  7. climatehawk1

     /  July 27, 2015

    Excellent, must-read Margaret Atwood piece: It’s not climate change, it’s everything change: https://medium.com/matter/it-s-not-climate-change-it-s-everything-change-8fd9aa671804

    • I hate to say this, but Ms Atwood falls prey to fossil fuel centric worldview here. Her treatment of future 1 is as if tech and capacity for adaptation had, somehow, frozen in the 1970s. She fails to even mention that even without the added cost of externalities, electricity provided by wind and solar is already cheaper than gasoline. And, of course we are going to keep using oil as a raw material, just no longer burn it.

      Fear of peak oil is over-rated as well (as alluded to in her future 2 scenario). We’ll still have fertilizer, plastics and , yes, chemicals too (although we’d probably be wise to limit their use) given ocean dead zones, overloading the biosphere with plastics, and a variety of other externalities related to these less lethal than climate change, though still dangerous bi-products of oil. Future 2 in the Atwood piece is more a peak oil collapse scenario that

      1. Ignores the increasingly flexible replacement energy sources as replacements for both electricity generation and transport
      2. Ignores the fact that climate change hits us hard well before we run out of oil
      3. Ignores the fact that societies shifting to sustainability are inherently more cooperative and less competitive

      Finally, Atwood re-posts fossil fuel company based misinformation such as:

      “Biofuels require more oil to produce than they replace.” Absolutely incorrect. Though biofuels are lower EROEI than fossil fuels, the ones we use currently are not net negative EROEI. Nor does all the energy involved in their production come from oil. Far less now, in fact, than in 2009 when Atwood made her first statement on the matter. They’re more an issue as it compares to food security and land use (depending on the biofuel). Gen 2 biofuels which the oil companies are trying to kill in their infancy do not have the same land use requirements and are even better on the EROEI scale.

      To look at it another way, why would oil companies lobby so hard to get rid of biofuels if the biofuels used more oil to produce than they replace? Absolute nonsense that.

      Atwood may try getting out of Canada. I’m sure there’s pleanty of fossil fuel based misinformation there that circulates widely. Although, given that it’s everywhere I’m disappointed to see what amounts to a failure to check out some of the facts.

      • Hi Robert. Forgive me, but I don’t really follow what you’re saying about the Atwood piece. Can you please elaborate on your critique?

      • Thanks very much for your additions.

        • No worries, David. I very much enjoy Margaret’s work and masterful writing. I’m just troubled by a general urban legend type spread of bad information through popular outlets.

      • Jeremy

         /  July 27, 2015

        “Why would oil companies lobby so hard to get rid of biofuels if the biofuels used more oil to produce than they replace?”

        Perhaps for the same reason that 97% of frackers continue to pump oil at a loss!


        • It’s all market dominance. Frackers pump at a loss to try to cling to market share in hopes that the price will go up. The oil lobby fights biofuels because the liquid fuels are competition that erodes their market share. A competition that they are required to blend in to existing fuels due to law.

          Biofuels now displace upwards of 5 million barrels per day of liquid fuels globally. This drives down the cost of oil and drives drillers out of business. The industry is fighting it in the same manner they fight other forms of energy — misinformation, lobbying, economic warfare.

  8. So it looks like we are going to have a mid-oceanic El Niño, and one for the record books.

    I’m curious as to how that will ramp up hurricane season here on the Gulf Coast. We’ve only had two tropical storms so far, and yesterday and today a disturbance over Florida that shoulda’ been a contendah.

    • El Niño typically tamps down hurricane activity in the Atlantic. That said, we can still see strong individual storms during an El Nini year.

      Interesting feature. Looks like the RRR is starting to collapse a bit. Pretty early. But could be a precursor.

  9. Loni

     /  July 27, 2015

    Looking into your crystal ball, Robert, does the additional heat in the eastern Pacific, (the Two Blobs), which weren’t there in ’97-’98 event indicate a more intense El Nino, or a more prolonged El Nino……..or both? It’s a guess, I know.

    Another great post, Sir.

    • I don’t know that you can make this kind of if-then comparison. That said, the sustained warm air and surface warm water in EPAC force a tendency for more WWB in WPAC by teleconnection. The warm pool there tends to be crushed in the later stages of El Niño development as the extra heat at the equator aids in storm track intensification. Differentials aren’t high enough for this yet. And the tendency for such a shift is during the Fall /Winter time frame. That would imply a potential for continued strengthening as indicated by models, continued WWB and the reinvigorated Kelvin Wave.

      • Phil

         /  July 28, 2015

        Looks like another WWB unfolding at the moment. Some speculation on arctic sea ice forum site whether it is due to cyclone activity or flipping of Hadley cell into El Nino mode. Certainly some low depression/cyclone activity in the region according to earth null school. Also, some uncertainty over strength and duration of the event although possibly lasting several days.

        Robert, do you know if the MJO is playing any role or it is currently elsewhere?

        Will be interesting to see what eventuates.

      • Abel Adamski

         /  July 28, 2015

        Robert , also noting with interest the slow down of Greenland surface ice melt.
        Are we looking at the early tentative shoots of Hansens stratification cycle , especially when taken in conjunction with el Nino and the Equatorial Warming, I wonder. ?

        • The 2012 melt was large enough to dump AMO into the negative, slow AMOC and flush a minor cool pool of fresh water into the North Atlantic. GRACE should capture any mass balance loss due to basal melt and warming as the amplifying feedback that Hansen IDs kicks in. Surface melt would necessarily slow in such a situation due to perpetual trough development in the North Atlantic. So the pattern looks right, we just need to see if basal melt is kicking in. If so, it’s a slide into Storms. If not, we probably get some more atmospheric heat pulses as we saw during 2012. It’s just a question of whether or not the Heinrich event feedback is already getting kick started.

      • Phil

         /  July 28, 2015

        Will be interesting if the MJO causes any additional WWB enhanced activity when/if it arrives in WPAC region although I noticed the WWB’s seem to becoming more centrally located instead of near PNG.

        • We might actually get one more solid WWB out of MJO come Fall. Lots of convection closer to mid ocean which fueled the extension of the current WWB. Gradient is starting to look more healthy as well.

      • csnavywx

         /  July 29, 2015

        There might be some contribution from an equatorial Rossby wave there, but it’s likely that Bjerknes feedback has started to kick in higher gear, making these events more likely as warm water and the main warm pool continues to migrate east. Guidance does have some TC activity spawning near the main area of the WWB and the warm pool. In fact, JTWC finally issued an “invest” area for the northern disturbance. We may yet have our third equator-straddling TC couplet of the year….

  10. Jeremy

     /  July 27, 2015

    A wonderfully succinct summary of our predicament, in just two acts!

    “Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing”


  11. Interesting radio interview with Prod. Mike Mann on the Hansen et al 2015 paper…


  12. Ryan in New England

     /  July 28, 2015

    Great update on the current El Niño, Robert! This one is starting to look like a monster.

    Joe Romm has a good piece concerning the Hansen paper. We are certainly in the Hyper-Anthropocene!


  13. Sunkensheep

     /  July 28, 2015

    The blob is something else. The heat in the north pacific causes a south->north flow in the eastern equatorial pacific. This sweeps warm water northwards, further reinforcing the blob. This situation also helps maintain the RRR. This represents a reverse of what “should be” going on, and is possibly related, along with heat buildup in the indan ocean to the slowdown of the AMOC and consequently global thermohaline circulation.

    I will be watching to see if the westerly winds actually manage to draw warm water from the Indian ocean back into the western Pacific. This could become a rather “”interesting”” elNino.

    • We do tend to get west coast warming prior to El Niño peak. This particular instance has been exaggerated to a new extreme by the human heat forcing.

  14. Nuwan

     /  July 28, 2015

    Arctic sea ice melt trends?

  15. RE the previous post about Jim Hansen latest paper and suggested 6 % annual decline in FF production/consumption. What folks here think about this text?

    Maybe our global civilization would make it through the first year without falling apart, but maybe not. And maybe we humans would make it through the second year, but maybe not. But I guarantee you global civilization would not make it through the third year without going belly up. You can take that to the bank (so to speak).

    Destroying The Town In Order To Save It



    • bill shockley

       /  July 28, 2015

      Hansen thinks it’s pushing the limits of what’s feasible, but it’s doable.

      Carbon taxes are very effective. The dividend redistributes wealth and strengthens the economy. Half the emissions reduction is through efficiency gains. The rest of the reductions can be had through renewables and nuclear. There is a 10 or more year phase in of the tax during which individuals and corporations adjust their budgets and business plans as they begin to understand and reconcile themselves to the new regime and as the tax increases in size. It’s capitalism (price signal) @Work plus a little pragmatic socialism.

      Note also that Hansen thinks the carbon sink is strengthening and that more than 100 GtC can be captured through agriculture and forestry practices, and so the target doesn’t have to be quite as extreme as 6%/year. And note also that the goal here is not merely staying below 2C, but returning (after a brief overshoot) to 1C/350ppm this century.

      • That would be a rational path. But we need to get on it yesterday. If we could get it through at the Paris summit, we’ll be much better off.

      • bill shockley

         /  July 30, 2015

        That would be a rational path.
        It’s downright clever. The dividend, if it is robust, spares the poor and the less well off, raises awareness of the climate change problem, and makes the tax popular. British Colombians love the tax and would like to see more! In Australia the tax was not transparent, not revenue neutral, and although it was effective at lowering emissions, the Australian people (the voters) were suspicious and it lost support in the government.

        If we could get it through at the Paris summit
        Is it even on the table at Paris?

        Hansen thinks the best chance is for China or the US to adopt it and then the rest of the world would get on board in order to keep the tax revenue at home rather than give it away when they export FF-containing products. In contrast, Cap & Trade schemes do not “export” well, aside from all the other problems they can have in execution.

        Hansen also thinks a revenue neutral scheme would/should appeal to Republicans since it doesn’t increase the size of government. Of course a sizable portion of Republicans are not thinking rationally. It’s a problem.

    • bill shockley

       /  July 28, 2015

      Looks like Sweden did about 4.1% per year from 1970 to 1990.

      Youtube: Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge: James Hansen Keynote

      … It’s not just the United States… every country that I’ve gone to except one–there’s actually one country that’s done something sensible. Here’s the carbon intensity.

      What we’re actually going to have to do with our energy is make the carbon intensity approach zero. The best that has been done is Sweden, which has about half of its energy from hydro-power, so, renewable energy. And the rest is from Nuclear power. So it’s electricity is carbon free. It still has about 20, 25 percent–units of carbon intensity–but that’s because of vehicles. But basically, they’ve solved the problem, and they did it by means of a large carbon price–a large carbon tax–and a government policy that they would build nuclear power and they would get carbon free electricity. If you have carbon free electricity, you’re basically there, because you can make liquid fuels from electricity. They’re right now more expensive than fossil fuels because governments subsidize and make fossil fuels so easy. But if everyone had carbon free electricity, we would basically be home.

  16. Colorado Bob

     /  July 28, 2015

    Climate Change Causing Ocean Acidification, Low Oxygen –

    July 28, 2015

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Climate change is turning ocean water more acidic and creating low-oxygen “dead zones” – issues that have serious implications for the entire oceanic ecosystem.

    That’s the subject of a Wednesday workshop in Sacramento on the findings of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel. According to Jenn Phillips, project manager with the Ocean Protection Council – an arm of the state government that advises policymakers on marine science issues – the problem affects the entire west coast.

    The Wednesday workshop is free and open to the public, and will be streamed live on the web. It begins at 10 a.m. at the California Environmental Protection Agency office in Sacramento. –
    See more at:

    • Next, the hydrogen sulfide producing zones… Just lovely. Why can’t we listen to people like Hansen and get a move on to prevent more of this, please?

  17. Colorado Bob

     /  July 28, 2015

    Alaska’s terrifying wildfire season and what it says about climate change

    FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Hundreds of wildfires are continually whipping across this state this summer, leaving in their wake millions of acres of charred trees and blackened earth.

    At the Fairbanks compound of the state’s Division of Forestry recently, workers were busy washing a mountain of soot-covered fire hoses, which stood in piles roughly six feet high and 100 feet long. About 3,500 smokejumpers, hotshot crews, helicopter teams and other workers have traveled to Alaska this year from across the country and Canada. And they have collectively deployed about 830 miles of hose this year to fight fires.


  18. Colorado Bob

     /  July 28, 2015

    What to Expect from El Niño: North America

    By: Bob Henson


    • Pretty good report by Bob there. Will be doing an assessment of this kind in August once a few more bits clear up. West Coast is looking wetter and wetter, though. Could be good or too much of a good thing.

  19. – Here’s something from the Alaska Dispatch that RS, has covered here.
    AK must be taking it seriously now.
    Less ice equals more fetch and wave energy for waves. I wonder what kind of flushing and sea ice dispersal a tsunami event would produce. Many faults and volcanoes are in the Pacific Rim.

    Study: Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering waves are getting bigger

    ‘Waves grew bigger and spaced farther apart as ice cover diminished in the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters off Alaska and western Canada, new research shows.

    Since the 1970s, the biggest waves in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas have grown at a rate of 0.3 to 0.8 percent per year, according to a comprehensive study led by Environment Canada. The time it takes waves to cycle, a measurement known as period, has grown even more, by 3 to 4 percent per year, more than tripling since 1970, according to the study, published by the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.

    It uses a wide variety of weather and climate observations collected over the years, including recorded sea-surface temperatures, atmospheric conditions, wind speeds and other parameters, to calculate the wave patterns going back over the past decades.
    … swells — the rolling mechanical waves that travel long distances over the ocean — account for most of the wave changes researchers measured…’

    In this 2013 file photo, Chukchi Sea waves crash on the coast at Barrow. Marc Lester / ADN

  20. For those not versed in the more arcane aspects of the discussion – can we please have explanations of acronyms – EPAC, WWB, WPAC, MJO etc etc.. maybe a glossary on a side panel (with explanatory links would help!) – for the non-cognescenti – that would make your important messages and discussion far more accessible! Keep up the good work!

  21. Ralph

     /  August 15, 2015

    I forgot to check pacific sea currents for a while. Take a look, it is interesting.
    A river of warm water. Quite a large river. About 10000 miles long, approaching 1000 miles wide. Heading eastwards across the pacific. Quite slow, so takes two or three months to cross the mighty pacific ocean, but inexorable and carrying god knows how much heat energy.
    This looks like El Nino in action.
    The initial subsurface Kelvin waves now merging with the surface level flows, directly driven by the anomalous wind conditions.
    More and more warm water flooding eastwards along the equator over the pacific.

  1. Possible Strongest El Nino on Record Gets Another Kick From Upper Ocean Heat | Artic Vortex
  2. An Army of Firefighters Battles 14 Wildfires in Triple Digit Heat Across California — More than 1,000 People Displaced | robertscribbler
  3. The Pace of Ocean Rise Yet Quickens — AVISO Shows Record Spike in Sea Level | robertscribbler

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