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This Year’s El Niño Looks Menacingly Familiar

The world is bracing for record rains and droughts

Do these satellite sea surface images look similar? Experts think so. The image of the Pacific Ocean on the left was taken recently. To the right is a sea surface image taken in December 1997. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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Weather watchers have found a doppelgänger—the evil twin of a past weather system that suggests Earth is in for a wild 2016. Satellite images of the Pacific Ocean suggest that El Niño 2015/16 could be as bad as the one that happened in 1998.

In a release, NASA shared satellite imagery of this year’s sea surface heights. The image looks quite similar to observations taken in December 1997. El Niño conditions that were brewing 18 years ago were truly vengeful, causing an epic winter with the warmest, wettest winter temperatures in 104 years and was responsible for hurricanes, floods, record rainfalls and ice storms.

El Niño events occur when warm waters in the Eastern Pacific Ocean influence everything from ocean conditions to weather on land. The events are part of a dual cycle called the El Niño Southern Oscillation cycle, which describes the ways in which the ocean and atmosphere typically fluctuate in the area between the International Date Line and 120 degrees West.

During El Niño, warm water builds up in the ocean, which then fuels a warming atmosphere, subsequently spurring tons of rain. During La Niña, the other side of the cycle, cool waters build and cool the atmosphere, drying up rain and causing parched weather conditions on land.

The current El Niño is actually running a bit late. Last summer, scientists began to sound the alarm about rising sea temperatures, and Japan’s weather bureau confirmed the phenomenon in December 2014. But the big event never materialized.

Scientists defended their predictions, pointing out that weaker El Niño events are largely unpredictable by definition. Since the event relies on the interaction of the water and the atmosphere, both parties must play ball in order to create an El Niño. “The possibility of a major El Niño was just that: one among many possible outcomes,” Michelle L’Heureux wrote early this year on NOAA’s blog.

This event, though, seems to be the real thing. The prospect of the strongest El Niño on record is causing concern among humanitarian groups—especially because El Niño can cause droughts in areas that aren’t struggling with record rains. But the phenomenon’s existence doesn’t necessarily spell global doom: As Tim Radford writes for The Guardian, the climate event could simply peter out.

Whether strong, weak or nonexistent, one thing’s for sure: El Niño knows how to keep weather experts on their toes.

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