Basu: Planning for more abnormal weather after a visit from El Niño

Pia Basu, Columnist

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On Dec. 24 in New York City, the temperature in Central Park reached a high of 72 degrees, with the rest of the month averaging a high of 56 degrees. I walked around the New York Botanical Garden on Christmas Eve without a coat, the air smelling of spring from the blooming flower beds.

Science would suggest that extraordinary weather is something we should begin to expect. As an east-coaster, I am familiar with winter but more than happy to avoid any weather that resembles Chicago’s, so I wasn’t exactly complaining. That being said, ice cream definitely felt more seasonal than hot chocolate last month, making the holidays seem different than usual and causing general unease in the back of everyone’s minds.

New York’s unusually warm temperatures was a result of the El Niño pattern that caused abnormal weather all over the US. On the other side of the country, California encountered some momentary relief from drought thanks to an onset of rainstorms, with the first major El Niño storm hitting on Jan. 5 and causing road closures due to flooding as well as mud and rock slides. California had struggled with wildfires and drought the past few years, forcing the state government to impose stringent water usage restrictions.

The El Niño is a weather phenomenon that warms the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, and transfers a large quantity of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere. El Niño occurs every two to seven years and is hard to predict more than six or so months in advance. It causes a reversal in global weather patterns, bringing Pacific storms to California, causing droughts in South Asia and Australia, and pushing warm air over the East Coast of the U.S.

El Niño has been happening on Earth for thousands of years. But, the intensity of the phenomenon is important: three of the strongest El Niño events have occurred in recent history, 1982-1983, 1997-1998 and now 2015-2016, the strongest.

It is common knowledge that the planet’s average temperature is on the rise as a result of greenhouse gas emissions and human activity, and this rise is likely to lead to destabilizing, potentially dangerous weather conditions. Sea level is rising as glaciers melt, and oceans are warming. 2015 was the warmest year on record, and 13 out of the 14 warmest years in history have occurred this century.

This past month’s weather might have been just as much of an aberration without climate change occurring simultaneously, but some research suggests that global warming and general climate change will lead to much stronger El Niño events than we have previously seen. And general scientific consensus concludes that climate change has intensified storms and droughts.

Research on the precise link between El Niño and climate change needs to be finalized. While El Niño caused odd weather this winter, it would behoove us all to prepare for more unusual climate in the coming years, both mentally and in government policy.

The climate change agreement recently reached in Paris is a good first step, especially since it was lauded as a global effort, and climate change affects all of us. Hopefully the winner of the 2016 presidential election is someone who realizes what a serious threat climate change poses to not only America, but to global and regional stability. And as far as ordinary people go, we need to come to terms with the fact that 72 degrees on Christmas Eve might not be a once in a lifetime event.

Pia Basu is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at piabasu2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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