Since early July 2023, countries across the world have reported unprecedented heat waves sweeping their nations. Some of these heat waves caused serious fires, as was the case in Greece, Italy, Spain, and France, while others had a noticeable impact on people’s health, ability to work, and way of life, as was the case in the United States, Canada, France, and China, where temperatures surpassed 42°C for the first time. This prompted these countries to declare a weather-related extreme emergency.
Meteorological organizations from all over the world agreed that the planet’s changing climate and the rise in global warming rates were to blame for these waves, which affected parts of the world, not just a specific region. On 8 June, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a statement on the onset of El Niño.
So, what exactly is El Niño, and how does it influence our planet?
In July 2023, the average global temperature surpassed all previous records for more than one day, leading scientists to declare July the hottest on record for more than a century, surpassing the 2016 heat wave and making 2023 the hottest year on record.
Higher-than-average temperatures have affected many countries, which has increased the level of preparedness needed to face these heat waves. These record temperatures also caused moderate to severe fires, in addition to the sea level rise, drought, floods, crop failure, and other negative effects that the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change warned of in the second and third weeks of July and that may last until the end of next September.
Temperatures reached 43°C in Greece, over 39.5°C in Spain, and 40°C in some regions of France, amidst warnings and preparations for fires in a number of southern coastal regions. In the United States, many regions experienced temperatures of at least 43°C for longer than usual periods of time—more than 18 consecutive days—which put a strain on the health system and exposed about 1.6 million people to the risk of heat exhaustion.
The majority of the countries in the Mediterranean region experienced heat waves with temperatures above 40°C, and the area was categorized as a “hotspot” as a result. Throughout the entire month of July in Europe, the temperature never dropped below 37°C. China also experienced the highest temperatures, with Jingxing, for instance, recording a temperature of 43.3°C. The situation in Africa was exacerbated by temperatures that never dropped below 39.6°C, even at night. Climate scientists noted that temperatures were about 1.8°F (1°C) warmer than the average for the years 1979–2000, which is an average that is warmer than the averages of the 20th and 19th centuries.
According to scientists, the two main causes of the heat are long-term warming brought on by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and the natural El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which affects ecosystems, changes global weather patterns, and raises temperatures in many parts of the world.
What is El Niño?
El Niño refers to the warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean by up to 3°C, whereas La Niña refers to the cooling of the ocean. This sets off a domino effect that can be seen and felt all over the globe. This climate pattern is known as El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is an irregular periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.
Despite being a natural occurrence, El Niño is a sporadic and unpredictable weather pattern that occurs every two to seven years when the sea surface temperature in the eastern Pacific Ocean rises above normal. This causes weather anomalies in various parts of the world.
According to recent studies, El Niño’s effects are likely to intensify and occur more frequently, which will contribute to the planet’s continued warming. This will result in an increase in Earth’s surface temperatures of about 0.1°C for the duration of the phenomenon, which could last anywhere from a few months to two years. In a similar vein, some scientists have cautioned that the average global temperature may rise above the 1.5°C threshold.
The Pacific Ocean stretches over 13,000 kilometers from its eastern edge off the coast of South America to its western edge near Indonesia. El Niño affects ocean temperatures, the speed and strength of ocean currents, the health of coastal fisheries and marine life, and the local weather in the region, to say nothing of the rise in sea surface temperature, which has already increased at a rate of 0.1°C above historical norms.
Figure 1 depicts the impact of the El Niño phenomenon on global temperatures between 1950 and 2020.
Figure 1: El Niño’s impact on global temperatures
How Does El Niño Affect the Global Climate?
El Niño events have occurred before (1972-1973, 1982-1983, 1997-1998, and 2015-2016), and the most recent one was associated with record-breaking global temperatures, droughts, floods, and wildfires. Most climate models indicate that El Niño in 2023 is the most severe. The Pacific Ocean’s sea surface temperatures may rise by 1-3°F or more, and warmer conditions may last for up to two years.
This unusual warmth is associated with a decrease in easterly trade winds, an increase in precipitation, and a decrease in the central tropical Pacific Ocean’s surface air pressure. These disturbances in normal air movements in the tropics influence mid-latitude jet streams, which is how El Niño can influence global weather.
Scientists have speculated that El Niño could cause warmer-than-average temperatures and drier conditions, particularly in the northern United States and Canada.
In the Gulf Coast and southeastern United States, however, these periods are wetter than usual, cause more flooding, and increase precipitation in some regions of Central and South America. However, this will result in periods that are wetter than usual and more flooding in the Gulf Coast and Southeast United States, and in some regions of Central and South America, precipitation will increase. Australia will also experience extreme heat, drought, and wildfires, as its temperature has increased by 1.4% since the turn of the 20th century.
Perhaps the Horn of Africa will experience more drought and an uneven distribution of precipitation, as it has in the past. In other parts of Africa, El Niño will also bring about floods, landslides, and an increase in the frequency of diseases that kill livestock and crops. In addition to droughts in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and northern Australia, precipitation is anticipated in southeast China. In the United Kingdom, El Niño events will typically result in hotter, drier summers.
According to a study published in the Science journal, this year’s El Niño may cause $3 trillion in global economic losses, shrinking GDP as extreme weather decimates manufacturing and agricultural production and has an adverse impact on human health and ecosystems.
In short, the Middle East, North Africa, and the GCC states will experience a change in weather patterns, and the intensification of El Niño conditions may result in heavy and frequent rains in the Gulf countries during the upcoming winter. The Nile Basin countries, including Egypt, will experience more droughts during El Niño years, and the increase in temperature and humidity will cause an increase in Nile River evaporation rates and water shortages, as well as an increase in human thermal comfort indicators, which poses serious health risks. This calls for urgent action to curb climate change and cut down on carbon emissions.