Climate Change Blogs

El Niño 2015: Let’s Try It Again

Published: June 2, 2015
El Niño 2015: Let’s Try It Again

I haven’t looked through the El Niño world this year. A year ago, with aplomb, we were working through the Super El Niño flurry. Here is my series from 2014.

May 2014:
Tracking El Niño
Underlying Models
August 2014:
Tracking El Niño: Summertime Update
October 2014:
El Niño, California Drought, and Predictions
December 2014:
California Drought, El Niño, Warm Earth (One more time)

Where are the 2015 Super El Niño blogs? They are around, but they don’t seem as present:

Can long anticipated ‘Super El Niño’ save California?
Growing buzz around potential “Super El Niño”
Onrush of Second Monster Kelvin Wave Raises Specter of 2015 Super El Niño
Update: Is a belated 'super' El Niño in the works for 2015?
A Strong El Niño Could Flourish by Fall: Five ways it could affect our weather

Reading through these blogs, the words are, for the most part, far more considered than in 2014. And, here, in 2015 we actually have an El Niño, though it is a bit of a strange one.

OK. El Niño and La Niña are names given to frequently occurring patterns of variation that are concentrated in the tropical Pacific Ocean, but that change the average temperature of Earth for about a year. When there is an El Niño the globe is warmer and when there is a La Niña the globe is cooler. Even though 2014 did not contain an official El Niño event, the eastern Pacific did warm, and 2014 went down as the warmest year of the modern record, since 1880. Here in 2015, with a warming in the eastern Pacific that meets the criteria of intensity and persistence of an El Niño, 2015 will undoubtedly be warmer still.

Starting with the March 2015 Diagnostic Discussion, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center (CPC) issued an El Niño advisory and stated that El Niño conditions were being observed. This statement was made as the warmer than average temperature in the Pacific Ocean were behaving in concert with the atmosphere. (Nice discussion of ocean-atmosphere relationships during El Niño by Bob Henson). Throughout the spring all of the forecast centers, listed below, forecast stronger El Niño conditions to take hold in summer and to continue through fall, and indeed, the rest of the year.

Northern Hemisphere springtime offers a special challenge for El Niño forecasters. Michelle L’Hereaux provides a nice discussion of the spring predictability barrier on the continuing-to-be-excellent NOAA ENSO Blog. Therefore, as the El Niño was observed to develop during the spring, we have seen the confidence in the forecasts increase. From the CPC May 14 discussion: “There is an approximately 90% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere summer 2015, and a greater than 80% chance it will last through 2015.” The May 26 summary from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology states, “The El Niño in the tropical Pacific continues to strengthen. International climate models surveyed by the Bureau indicate sea surface temperatures will remain well above El Niño thresholds at least into the southern hemisphere spring.” (Please note, that’s southern hemisphere spring, northern hemisphere fall.)

With regard to the predicted intensity, the International Research Institute for Science and Society states: “The consensus of ENSO prediction models indicate weak to moderate El Niño conditions during the May-July 2015 season in progress, likely strengthening during summer and lasting through 2015.”

Looking across the modeling centers current public statements, there is some information supporting the possibility of a very strong El Niño. However, there are a number of circumstances that suggest that an extreme or record El Niño is unlikely. These circumstances include the fact that we are just making it past that difficult springtime barrier that challenges the models; that the predictions for a very strong event lie on the edges of the distributions of the model predictions; and that the present El Niño conditions are unusual.

Bob Henson explains the unusual aspects of the present El Niño. Notably the connection between the atmosphere and ocean still don’t synchronize and correlate in the way that we have observed in both past events and successful forecasts. In fact, the current temperature patterns are more like those normally seen in classic El Niño Decembers.

It’s worth considering weather models and seasonal prediction models a little bit. Every day we have many weather events that we can use to learn to predict and improve weather models. We run through observational and forecast cycles, one after another, gaining experience. Weather forecasting is dominated by atmospheric observations and systems evolving in time ranges of hours to days. For El Niño we get an event every now and then, and there is only one at a time. Therefore, we’ve only had a small number of events since we have had the observations and modeling to provide confident forecasts. Not-so-well-observed ocean processes that evolve slowly, compared to weather systems, are involved. The fast evolving weather systems play with the slowly evolving ocean. Fundamentally, we don’t have as much experience with El Niño forecasting; we are far less likely to have experienced and observed the range of El Niño behavior.

All of challenges to modeling El Niño are compounded by the warming Earth and the changes in water vapor associated with warming oceans and atmosphere. This lack of stationarity, that is, the mean state of the Earth is changing, undermines our intuition. The past experiences are not as good a guide to assess forecast uncertainty as they used to be. This means that surprises outside of the forecast envelope are, in fact, more likely. That fact, however, does not mean that the models suggesting extreme events should be given higher value. To me, it means that high scrutiny should be given to the observations of the evolving El Niño, and that special attention should be given to the coherence of the processes that describe the dynamical features of the oceans and atmosphere.

Undoubtedly, globally 2015 will be warm, hot perhaps a better word. El Niño will be interesting. It is hard to justify the forecast of an extreme event; however, the situation on the ground is outside of our experience, and we should be on the lookout for surprises.


Forecast and Analysis Centers

Climate Prediction Center Alert System and the Climate Prediction Center Diagnostic Discussion

International Research Institute Forecast Products and the Quick Look

Japanese Meteorological Agency El Niño Monitoring and Outlook and a nice graph of historical events

Australian Bureau of Meteorology Wrapup

Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) Forecasts

Information Portals


CLIVAR (Variability and predictability of the ocean-atmosphere system) Forecast Page

World Meteorological Updates

Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory El Niño Theme Page Forecasts

Climate Prediction Center FAQ

NOAA’s El Niño Page and NOAA’s La Niña Page

Earth's 5th Deadliest Heat Wave in Recorded History Kills 1,826 in India

Published: May 29, 2015
The death toll from India's horrid May heat wave has risen to 1,826, making this year's heat wave the second deadliest in India's recorded history--and the fifth deadliest in world history. According to statistics from EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, India's only deadlier heat wave was in 1998, when 2,541 died. With over 400 deaths recorded in just the past day and the heat expected to continue over India for another week, the 1998 death toll could well be exceeded in this year's heat wave. However, death tolls from heat waves are very difficult to estimate, since excess heat is typically not listed as the primary cause of death in cases where the victim has a pre-existing condition such as heart or lung disease. For example, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) lists the total direct deaths from the U.S. heat wave of 1980 at 1,260, but estimates that the combined direct and indirect deaths (i.e., excess mortality) due to heat stress was 10,000. Below is the list of top ten deadliest heat waves in world history as compiled by EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, which uses direct deaths for their statistics, and not excess mortality.

The 10 Deadliest Heat Waves in World History
1) Europe, 2003: 71,310
2) Russia, 2010: 55,736
3) Europe, 2006: 3,418
4) India, 1998: 2,541
5) India, 2015: 1,826+
6) U.S. and Canada, 1936: 1,693
7) U.S., 1980: 1,260
8) India, 2003: 1,210
9) India, 2002: 1,030
9) Greece and Turkey, 1987: 1,030

Note that the EM-DAT database may not be entirely reliable; for example, they list no heat deaths in the U.S. for the 1988 heat wave, while the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) lists 454 direct deaths and 5,000 combined direct and indirect deaths. The 2010 Japanese heat wave, which EM-DAT gives a death toll of 170 for, disagrees with the 1,718 total from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan. Weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera alleges that the deadliest and most brutal heat wave Chinese history, in Eastern China in the summer 2013, had thousands of deaths which were not reported by the Chinese authorities. The official death toll was merely 40.

Figure 1. A young Indian child pours water on himself as he tries to cool himself off in New Delhi on May 28, 2015. Image credit: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images.

It's the heat and the humidity
Temperatures across much of India have been 5°C (9°F) above average this May, with very high humidity. In many of the hardest-hit areas of eastern India, the heat index dropped below 100°F for only four hours each night for several consecutive days this week. This sort of day-after-day heat stress is very hard on vulnerable people, and leads to high mortality. For example, in Channai (Madras) on May 24, the high temperature reached 108°F and the heat index topped out at 123°F, and never dropped below 97°F the entire day. Far more extreme heat index values have been observed in some areas. For example, on May 23 at 14:30,  Bhubneshwar recorded a temperature of of 42.2°C (108°F) with a dew point of 29.3°C (84.7°F), giving an astonishing heat index of 62°C (143.6°F.) According to weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera, a heat index of up to 65°C (149°F) has been measured at some stations in eastern India during the heat wave.

Figure 2. Progress of the monsoon towards India as of May 28, 2015 (green line) has been close to its average pace. If the monsoon follows its usual pace, it will move through the province hardest hit by this year's heat wave, Andhra Prahesh (shaded in yellow), by June 5. This province recorded 1,334 heat deaths as of May 29, 2015. Image credit: India Meteorological Department .

The monsoon is coming
This is the time of year when India's 1.2 billion people look beseechingly southwards, toward the advancing southwest monsoon. The monsoon's arrival brings rains that cool India's scorching May heat, and the monsoon's rains give life, providing 70 - 80% of the year’s total rainfall in just four months. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) is forecasting that the arrival of the southwest monsoon at the southern tip of India will occur this weekend, on May 30. This is two days ahead of the average arrival date, June 1. The monsoon should move through the province hardest hit by this year's heat wave, Andhra Prahesh, by June 5. However, IMD is also forecasting a roughly doubled chance of below-average rains during the summer monsoon period, and predicts only 91 percent of the usual rainfall will occur. The problem: the atmospheric circulation patterns brought on by an El Niño event usually cause much reduced monsoon rains. The current borderline weak/moderate El Niño event is forecast to intensify this summer, and this is likely to cause a significant reduction in monsoon rainfall over India. According to EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, more than 4.2 million people died in India between 1900 - 2014 due to droughts from failed monsoon rains, primarily during El Niño years. The five worst Indian monsoons for rainfall deficit:

1) 1877, -33%
2) 1899, -29%
3) 1918, -25%
4) 1972, -24%
5) 2009, -22%

Up until the late 1960s, it was common for the failure of the monsoon rains to kill millions of people in India; the 3-year drought that began during the strong El Niño event of 1965 killed at least 1.5 million people. However, since the Green Revolution of the late 1960s--a government initiative to improve food self-sufficiency using new technology and high-yield grains--failure of the monsoon rains has not led to mass famine in India. For example, the fifth worst drought in India's history occurred in 2009, but did not result in serious food shortages--and neither would a similar failure of the monsoon this year. However, a weak monsoon could affect India’s fragile power supply, since the country is heavily dependent on hydropower. In 2012, a weak monsoon forced farmers to use huge amounts of power to pump groundwater to make up for lack of rain. The resulting strain on the power grid helped trigger a blackout that affected 600 million people. Fortunately, many reservoirs in India are above their 10-year average level heading into the summer.

Climate change and India
This year's deadly heat wave in India was made much more probable by the fact that Earth is experiencing its hottest temperatures on record--the past twelve months were the warmest twelve-month period in recorded history, and so was the January - April 2015 period. According to the India Meteorological Department, a warming climate increased heat waves in India by a third between 1961 to 2010. As the planet continues to warm due to human-caused global warming, heat waves will become more frequent and more intense, and heat-related deaths will soar unless we take strong measures to adapt. An April 2015 paper published in Regional Environmental Change, Intensification of future severe heat waves in India and their effect on heat stress and mortality, warned that "heat waves are projected to be more intense, have longer durations and occur at a higher frequency and earlier in the year. Southern India, currently not influenced by heat waves, is expected to be severely affected by the end of the twenty-first century." Perhaps a bigger concern for India with climate change is drought, though. Many climate models show that climate change might increase the average rainfall in India from the monsoon, but when dry years occur, the hotter temperatures accompanying the dry years will drive much more intense droughts capable of causing significant challenges to growing food in India.

The May 27, 2015 post by Eric Holthaus of Slate discusses the India heat wave and climate change.

Wunderground's climate change blogger Dr. Ricky Rood wrote a nice 3-part series about the challenges India faces due to climate change after he completed a 2009 trip there.

Bob Henson will have a new post on the Texas/Oklahoma flood situation on Friday evening or Saturday morning.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Heat Climate Change

Sustainability: Essential Research and Education

Published: May 19, 2015
Sustainability: Essential Research and Education

My last blog was on universities divesting their endowments and pension funds from fossil fuel companies. One of the articles that I referred to was by George Will taking the position that divestment was sustainability gone wild. Will states that sustainability is like a religion with, for example, its premises “more assumed than demonstrated,” and “weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy.” Will is riffing off of the more than 250 page document by the National Association of Scholars entitled, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.

The National Association of Scholars “is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” The National Association of Scholars was founded in 1987 by Stephen Balch, who is identified as an American conservative scholar. The National Association of Scholars should not be confused with National Academy of Sciences, which is the abbreviation I associate with “NAS.”

The material I reference above strongly links sustainability and climate change, and, ultimately, takes the position that universities are taking unfounded positions based on “unresolved scientific debates." There is suggestion that faculty are pressured “to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses.” The document relies, sometimes deftly, on the rhetorical forms that are used to nurture doubt.

Enough – I am certain to get some grief for the amount of words I have devoted to the National Association of Scholars. It’s important to know where ideas and talking points come from, especially when there is the imprimatur of scholarship. There is the suggestion in these writings of a cultish march towards sustainability across the university community, and that divestment of fossil fuels is part of that cult.

As stated in my divestment blog, my faculty colleagues don’t all support divestment. In fact, I would conjecture that more universities have denied efforts to divest than have approved them. Similarly, there is a wide range of opinions on sustainability and the integration of sustainability into curriculum. In science departments, there is often the opinion that sustainability is notional, and it is not easily defined nor easily measured. Hence, it is not science. It is also true that sustainability has far broader reach than climate change.

I was first introduced to sustainability as a subject of research and education when I started my university career in 2005. At University of Michigan there is the Erb Institute, “Creating a Sustainable World Through the Power of Business,” the Center for Sustainable Systems, which supports “the design, assessment, and management of systems that meet societal needs in a more sustainable manner,” and the Graham Sustainability Institute, which fosters “sustainability at all scales by leading stakeholder-centric activities that systematically integrate talents across all U-M schools, colleges, and units.” All of these institutes have strong relationships with donors who have high success in business. These endowments paint the picture of individuals, families, and businesses, which recognize the importance of sustainability to assure future societal and business success. (Disclosure: I work closely with the Graham Sustainability Institute, and I am a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow.)

Sustainability is a young and changing field of research and education. Sustainability is not as easy to define as, say, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, urban planning, etc. The Graham Sustainability Institute answers the question What is Sustainability? as, “Sustainability encompasses solutions-driven scholarship and practice that seeks to safeguard the planet's life-support systems and enhance quality of life for present and future generations. The field is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It draws from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, engineering, design, and health sciences; from the professions and humanities; and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society.”

Adding the concept of sustainability to problem solving requires thinking about where our resources come from and what happens to our waste. It brings into consideration the energy required with obtaining resources, manufacturing, disposal, and management of the waste products. The value of the environment and ecological systems is brought into the calculation of cost. There is nothing in that list which is an easy calculation, and there are many aspects of sustainability that are not uniquely and definitively quantified. There are value judgments made by individuals, governments, advocacy organizations, and corporations.

I recently attended a webinar, organized by Our Spheres of Influence on the emergence of sustainability as a course of study, with a special focus on The New School. The New School is at the forefront of issues such as sustainability which fits into the vision “where design and social research drive approaches to studying issues of our time, such as democracy, urbanization, technological change, economic empowerment, sustainability, migration, and globalization.” It is one of the schools that has divested (Figure 1). One of the points from the webinar is that sustainability is emerging and that standards and practices are evolving. For those interested in sustainability and its incorporation into education there is the resource, Sustainability Improves Student Learning, which is a group that includes associations of physics, chemistry, biology, and geosciences.

Since sustainability crosses many disciplines, it is, in fact, quite difficult to bring into the discipline-focused culture of universities. It brings a focus to problem solving and participatory, deliberative process. There is a high demand from students, who increasingly see the requirement to manage our resources and wastes in order to thrive. Sustainability is an essential topic of research and education.


The discussion from the previous blog was fantastic, and I sent links to faculty and students. There was also a link in the comments to this article Map: Tracking Academia's Fossil Fuel Divestment. (See also

Figure 1: More than $50B in divestment pledges has come from 28 universities, 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals. (Credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News)
Categories:Climate Change

Why I Support Student Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns

Published: May 2, 2015
Why I Support Student Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns

Like many colleges and universities, students at the University of Michigan are advocating for the University to divest itself of fossil fuel assets. Specifically, Divest and Invest states “We, students at the University of Michigan, ask that the Regents form a committee composed of students, faculty and staff to determine the propriety of fossil fuel investments …” followed by a set of reasons the request is made.

This is the second student effort at Michigan for divestment in fossil fuels, the first being back in 2013. In that first effort the Regents decided not to divest. Looking at these two stakeholder groups, they have both acted rationally in the positions they have taken.

Fossil fuel divestment efforts at universities are part of a history of universities making statements on issues of societal importance and social justice. The statements are made by how they do and do not invest their endowments. Earlier divestment examples include tobacco and apartheid-related boycotts of companies doing business in South Africa. According to the advocacy organization, “Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.”

I have signed both the current and previous letters supporting the students. I have forwarded the letter to other faculty members, and I get about as many skeptical or negative responses as I get positive responses. In fact, if you look across Michigan’s campus, and I suspect Michigan is not unique – if you look across Michigan’s campus, there is much disagreement about the practicality, efficacy, and politics of divestment. In fact, the efforts of another student organization, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, to get the Central Student Government to support divestment was definitively defeated.

The Guardian has recently reviewed university-led efforts on divestment. A basic premise of the Guardian’s piece is that working with the fossil fuel companies has been too slow, with many of the companies being disingenuous. Of course, some companies have been overtly hostile and, in fact, have worked to disrupt efforts linking fossil fuels to dangerous, human-caused climate change. Note, the Guardian, itself, has become an advocate of aggressive divestment from fossil fuels, a decision of notable skepticism.

Many of the divestment arguments are based on appeals to social justice. In fact, the definition, quoted above, mentions moral ambiguity. The ultimate push or motivator, however, for divestment is the knowledge that fossil fuels extraction and use are causing rapid and dangerous climate change – along with a host of other environmental problems laden with issues of social justice. Most times, when there is an argument based on ethics and moral ambiguity, the argument falls into a quagmire. The easiest quagmire to fall into is the one of near-term and long-term consequences as well as choosing winners and losers. I have written about the complexity of some of these issues in previous blogs, for example We Like to Burn Things, and No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy. I note, only, that moral ambiguity is, by definition, ambiguous and, therefore, not often the foundation of definitive action. There are substantive moral and ethical issues on both sides of the fossil fuel divestment issue.

There is an interesting discussion on divestment from The Institutional Investor. In the article Why Endowments Should Resist Fossil Fuel Divestments, the authors, who have history with the University of Michigan, accept as given the role of fossil fuels and climate change. Their last two sentences are that, “It [divestment] contains an emotional message which may make some feel good. Whether is would actually do good is more doubtful.” An interesting statement in their article is that divestment serves to increase the polarization in the political argument, which is damaging, and my longer-term readers know that this is an issue of importance to me.

George Will, writing about divestment, claims it only does damage to the university, and therefore, damage to the students. In addition to financial damage, Will claims divestment efforts, and sustainability initiatives in general, marginalize academia and establish universities as non-serious. This is not an opinion I agree with; however, Will’s opinion does represent a point of view that is likely shared by some who are in the position of making decisions about divestment. Indeed, maintaining the money stream off which major universities feed and protecting the seriousness of the institution are, surely, high in the mind of many in the university community.

Stepping into the space of “how do we really solve this problem” my colleague John DeCicco has a piece Rather Than Divest Advocate for Carbon Balancing. He states that a scientific argument “offers reasoning more fundamental than the financial arguments or moral pressure heard in much of the discussion around fossil fuel divestment. In fact, climate science itself implies that the real need is to focus on rebalancing the global carbon cycle.”

DeCicco ends with:

“Even if one decries the policies and practices of certain corporations, that doesn’t mean their core business should be eliminated. There is rightful anger at some parts of the fossil fuel industry for sponsoring anti-environmental campaigns.”

“But it’s not helpful if such frustration causes a confusion of ends and means. Getting rid of fossil fuels is not the end goal. The end goal is balancing the carbon cycle. That’s what must be urgently pursued through whatever means are at hand, including those that enable prudent use of coal, oil and natural gas while actively mitigating their impact. In short, restoring the Earth to balance is the proper focus of environmental policy and advocacy.”

Why, therefore, do I support the student divestment efforts? At the top of my list, this is a place where the students have decided to take a position. It is a rational position from not only an ethical and moral point of view, but it is rational in the context of political process and societal change. In addition, the students have made the argument that they and their children will be the ones living and curating the world as the impacts of climate change grow and accelerate. Therefore, they have a solid position as a stakeholder in consequential decisions. I have written about generational time, and it is essential to reduce the amount of time that it takes today’s students to have profound and broad impact.

Next, this is a complex problem of climate change. I run an entire course on solving the complex problems of climate change. The skills gained by these students will be learned early in life and will place them in a better position to accelerate our society’s ability to respond to climate change.

Finally, divestment is a recurring part of political process and policy change. On the other side of the argument, as discussed in Merchants of Doubt, disruption of the process is also a part of the process. In some instances, the behavior of the disruptors is, definitely, immoral, based on establishing and marketing lies. The divestment argument stands on a foundation of knowledge; it is fundamentally responsible and its long-term goals are underrepresented and essential.


A positive spin on Earth Day from WU

Published: April 22, 2015

The challenges facing our global environment are serious indeed, but there are many smart people working on solutions, and there’s much to be optimistic about. At Weather Underground, we’re highlighting a wide range of these good-news stories in a special WU microsite created in honor of Earth Day. The theme is progress: through a collection of articles by researchers, field experts, and scientists, the microsite outlines the current state of our climate, how humans can adapt in coming years, and the various ways that we can minimize the damage to our planet's precious ecosystem.

Among the topics we cover:

--How climate change will influence food and wine production

--Why we needed Earth Day, and how it’s evolved since 1970

--The true cost of water: how water and energy are inextricably intertwined

--What a terrarium can teach us about the atmosphere, plus how to make your own

--How middle-school kids are using personal weather stations to learn about weather and climate

We invite you to dig into the microsite today as well as after Earth Day. It’s full of accessible information from experts and packed of engaging artwork and informative graphics. As is our tradition on Earth Day, we also present at the bottom of this post Dr. Jeff Masters' favorite wunderphotos uploaded to our web site over the past year. The Weather Underground staff has also put together an Earth Day gallery of 50 all-time awesome wunderphotos. Thanks go to everyone who has participated in making this the largest (1.8 million!) and best weather photo gallery on the Internet--your photos are truly an inspiration! Many of the choices were taken from our Worldview Gallery, updated weekly with the top wunderphotos of the week.

Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Figure 1. Top wunderphoto of the past year: “Clouds to the Left", was taken on July 16, 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska, by wunderphotographer LarryD. Driving across Nebraska, it’s the scenery above that always impresses!

Categories:Climate Change
About the Blogs
These blogs are a compilation of Dr. Jeff Masters,
Dr. Ricky Rood, and Angela Fritz on the topic of climate change, including science, events, politics and policy, and opinion.