El Niño is officially here according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency responsible for making the call. NOAA, however, says that the weather phenomenon is relatively weak and will different effects in various parts of the world.
Scientists have been watching ocean temperatures in the part of the eastern tropical Pacific known as the NINO3.4 region for signs of El Niño. To officially declare it “on”, temperatures there must be 0.5 degrees Celsius above normal for three consecutive months and appear likely to stay that way for the next few months. Temperatures cleared that threshold in October, and models have remained bullish they’ll stay there. As of early February, NOAA said sea surface temperatures in the region were 0.8 degrees Celsius above normal. But there was a missing component that held up NOAA from making this El Niño official.
So how does this affect the weather?
Ecuador’s meteorology office says the country has been feeling the effects of El Niño since November but don’t believe it will be catastrophic, such as the 1999 event. “We have seen increased rainfall on the coast and in the southern sierra,” the office says. “Guayaquil, Cuenca and Loja have seen rainfall amounts well above average and we expect this to continue through May and possibly longer.”
Meteorologists also say that heavy rains have caused an above average number of road closures and local flooding. “Highways between the sierra and the coast have witnessed more landslides than usual,” they say.
According to NOAA, warmer Pacific waters will mean heavier rain in the central Pacific near the International Date Line and less in the vicinity of Indonesia. These shifts then ripple around the world. That’s what forecasters have now seen and it’s why they declared on Thursday “these features are consistent with borderline, weak El Nino conditions.”
Because this isn’t a smouldering El Niño like the one that roiled the world from 2014-16, its impacts are likely to be limited, NOAA says. Over the course of that previous Super El Niño (yes, it’s a thing), the oceans heated up, harming corals everywhere. Droughts struck East Africa and Australia. The southern U.S. also saw a few heavy rainfall events, which are again in line with El Niño’s impact on the weather. This time around, NOAA suggests a more tepid series of impacts.
“Due to the expected weak strength, widespread or significant global impacts are not anticipated,” forecasters wrote. “However, the impacts often associated with El Nino may occur in some locations during the next few months.”