We’ve Never Experienced El Niño Like This

Climate scientists and meteorologists expect rising temperatures to lead to destructive storms, flooding, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts. They just don't know where, or when.

Residents of New York City and across the Northeast U.S. were served a very unpleasant and never-before-seen surprise on Tuesday: a thick haze of all-enveloping smoke that intensified throughout the day, leading to a crescendo around sunset with an acridity that burned eyes and throats and reeked of charred wood. “Unprecedented” wildfires raging across Canada plunged the city’s air quality to worst in the world, with no relief expected for days.

In Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Lower Manhattan skyline is obscured by haze. Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

This unfamiliar experience is likely a foreshadowing of the El Niño extreme weather effects that we can expect for the next year or so. For those unaccustomed to nature’s wrath, the episode pulls back the veil on the climate chaos that has been brewing for decades. Because we’ve never experienced an El Niño coupled with climate change at this advanced level of emissions and impacts, the effects could be pyrotechnic. In fact, they already are.

El Niño’s attendant mayhem

El Niño is a global weather phenomenon centered on the waters of the Western Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru. It typically occurs once every several years as surface temperatures rise and winds shift, leading to cascading weather impacts throughout the Pacific and stretching across the Americas and beyond. El Niño alternates with neutral and La Niña patterns, i.e., when lower ocean surface temperatures pervade and prevailing east-to-west winds blow more strongly. We have been in a La Niña cycle since 2020, which usually serves to moderate temperatures globally. El Niño, by contrast, heats things up, and is a leading factor in recent predictions for high global temperatures in the near term. Seasonal El Niño effects typically lead to hotter and drier temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, wetter weather in the Southwest and Southeast, and more cyclones in the Pacific but fewer in the Atlantic. This year, hotter summer temperatures are expected in the South and across the Eastern seaboard.

El Niño also reliably leads to a spike in extreme weather: droughts, floods, intense hurricanes (in some places), and attendant mayhem in agricultural production are common results. It also frequently brings new record global average temperatures, as in 1998 and 2016, and can lead to water and hunger crises most acute in developing countries: 60 million people faced hunger from the 2015-16 “Super El Niño” and acute 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Niño events led to trillions of dollars in global economic losses.

First Avenue during the 1965 New York City blackout. Experts are warning of blackouts across North America this summer. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, has a simple distillation of how El Niño will affect the world: “Expect chaos, expect extreme events,” she warned on a recent podcast.

Acute and chronic extreme weather

In 2023 these extreme events are coming, riding in on record temperatures. In May, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) projected that there is a 98 percent chance of a new annual high global temperature record by 2027, and a 66 percent chance of breaching 1.5C warming—the stretch goal of the Paris Agreement for the year 2100—for at least one year, decades earlier than that long time horizon would lead the casual observer to expect. Global average temperatures could rise as high as 1.8C above historical norms. For context, the already-toasty 2022, the fifth-hottest year on record despite the La Niña cycle (which ended in March), had global average warming of 1.15CRecord high ocean temperatures have already been observed even before the telltale El Niño effects in the Western Pacific have fully formed.

People in masks walk along the Hudson River as thick smoke shrouds the skyline of lower Manhattan.
Heavy smoke shrouds the skyline of lower Manhattan. Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

These numbers are not mere arithmetic curiosities: temperature is experienced as acute and chronic extreme weather. To wit, Western Canada experienced a spring of record warmth and dryness, leading to forest fires. These fires have spread to Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, igniting primarily through “dry lightning” typically only known in the wildfire-prone American West.

Meanwhile, the extreme weather and its human impacts are already piling up worldwide, whether a symptom of the emergent El Niño or simply our new climate reality. Western Europe is experiencing epic heat and drought, leading to battles in France over water basins and olive crop failures in Spain. In the Horn of Africa, 32 million people have endured four consecutive failed rainy seasons. In Vietnam and China, livestock are dying. Uruguay has run out of fresh water. Puerto Rico set records this week, reaching unsafe temperatures in recent days.

Unprecedented temperatures and weather patterns can have unexpected ripple effects with a sudden, unpleasant onset. Wildfire smoke is a perfect object lesson: outdoor activity is suddenly restricted and those with respiratory and cardiovascular vulnerabilities are facing acute impacts. Experts are warning of power blackouts across North America this summer as extreme temperatures coupled with power generation and transmission disruptions from droughts and wildfires push electricity grids to their breaking point, as is already happening in Asia. School closures have followed. Shipping is being disrupted in key rivers and canals. Crop yields are at risk.

In February, forest fires in south-central Chile killed more than 20 people, injured almost a thousand, and completely destroyed 800 homes in five days. Photo by JAVIER TORRES / AFP) (Photo by JAVIER TORRES/AFP via Getty Images

Our ability to make seasonal forecasts is still limited, but we’ve never had off-the-charts record ocean temperatures in both the Atlantic and Pacific at the onset of an El Niño as we do now. Many climate scientists and meteorologists, drawing on evidence from past El Niño cycles and events with a global warming signature, expect these conditions to lead to destructive storms, flooding, heat waves, fires, and droughts. We just don’t know exactly when, where, and which weather hazards will occur.

What to make of all of this? Look around. The climate crisis is in the air. It’s time to manage the consequences.

We’ve Never Experienced El Niño Like This