An El Nino weather pattern has led to heatwaves and bushfires in Europe, the US and Asia, and Australians are worried about what may be headed their way in the summer.
Italy is expected to reach a high of 48C – possibly the hottest in Europe – while China has already recorded a high of 52.2C in Sanbao.
Australia’s panic is particularly acute with the devastating bushfire summer of 2019-2020 still fresh in people’s minds, as are three wet La Niña summers.
“If we have an El Nino supercharged by climate change, we could be in for a very bad summer,” said UNSW Canberra’s Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick.
Andrew King, a climatologist at the University of Melbourne, wrote on the Conversation website that El Niño weather patterns ‘bring a high probability of hot, dry weather across much of Australia’.
An El Nino weather pattern in the Northern Hemisphere led to temperatures in the 40s in Europe and the United States. A woman is pictured cooling off in a fountain during an ongoing heatwave as temperatures reached 44 degrees in the Spanish Steppes on July 17, 2023 in Rome, Italy.
The heatwave also brought wildfires across two continents. A forest fire is pictured near the village of Makrimalli on the Greek island of Evia
Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick told Guardian Australia she was ‘very concerned (about heatwaves in Europe and the US) because these events have been going on for so long’.
What is the weather pattern of El Nino?
El Niño historically reduces rainfall through winter and spring across much of northern and eastern Australia.
Temperatures are generally higher than normal from winter to spring and summer.
Dr King said it was still too early to tell whether Australia was burning in summer, but ‘global warming will bring more record-high temperatures to Australia’.
The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) agrees with him and has yet to call El Niño for Australia because it has stricter criteria for doing so than the World Meteorological Organization, which has already declared El Niño.
Changes in the Pacific Ocean require a full atmospheric feedback to the BOM, known as coupling.
The Pacific Ocean is showing an El Niño state with warm waters along the equator, but weather patterns are not yet showing a typical El Niño state, with trade winds and pressure patterns, for example, currently near normal.
Meteorologist Dr Adam Morgan told ABC’s News Breakfast that ‘it’s a bit hard to say how much of an El Niño or El Niño-like situation is happening with what we’re seeing around the world right now.
‘What we do know is that the oceans are now warming everywhere.
“We’ve got really warm oceans off Europe, really warm oceans from places like Korea where we see a lot of monsoon rain, so that gives us the ability to keep temperatures high,” he said.
A fan sprays nebulized water to refresh tourists near the Colosseum in Rome on July 18, 2023.
Health workers met a tourist who fell ill with high temperatures in Rome, Italy as temperatures reached 45C
The BOM is on El Niño ‘warning’ for the summer, with models indicating the possibility of further warming, with sea surface temperatures remaining above the El Niño threshold at least until the end of the year.
And although the bureau hasn’t called an El Niño, it has issued a long-range forecast of warm and dry conditions for much of Australia from August to October.
But many, including ABC meteorologist Tom Saunders, believe it may only be a matter of time before the BOM calls El Niño for Australia.
‘The first major bushfire in four years is certainly possible due to vegetation growth, but that will come down to weather patterns during the spring and summer,’ Saunders said.
‘If we get the right combination of dry spring/summer and bursts of strong westerly winds then yes, there is potential for major bushfires.’
Around 200 firefighters, the army, police and other partners worked alongside helicopters to tackle the blaze in the Swiss canton of Valais (pictured)
The World Meteorological Organization warned that temperature records could be broken and urged people to stay safe and follow advice.
Dr King said there was a reason Australia was working in the slim hope of avoiding an El Niño summer.
“The particular atmospheric pattern that is extreme in the Northern Hemisphere is not replicated in the Southern Hemisphere, because we have more ocean and less land,” he said.
But he added that ‘Australia experiences its own … high pressure patterns that bring major heatwaves and extreme rain events’.
One way or another, Australia is likely in for a hot and dry summer in 2023-2024.