Busalacchi briefs congressional staffers on powerful El Niño

University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) Director, Professor Antonio Busalacchi, was invited to Capitol Hill last month to educate congressional and National Governors Association staffers about El Niño, the recurring Pacific Ocean temperature anomaly whose intensity this winter is on course to set new records.

An El Niño occurs when Pacific trade winds slacken, allowing warm water from the Western Pacific to shift east toward South America. El Niño events cause nutrient scarcity off the South American coast, decrease the risk of hurricanes in the Atlantic and alter weather patterns over the United States. Busalacchi and three other scientists invited by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit comprising universities, laboratories, aquariums and businesses, aimed to inform the congressional and governors’ association staff members about the mechanics and consequences of the phenomenon.

“We’ve got the largest El Niño, potentially largest ever, developing, and it clearly is set to rival the 1997-1998 event, which was the event of the 20th century,” said Busalacchi, who moderated the event. “So, a lot of both interest and concern about the implications for this developing El Niño.”

El Niños are associated with drier winters in the U.S. Midwest and East, more precipitation across the lower-latitude states, and warmer temperatures in the Northwest. Busalacchi said there was significant interest among the staffers in what this year’s event will mean for California’s four-year drought, which University of California-Davis researchers estimated will cost the state $2.7 billion and 21,000 jobs this year.

“There’s a lot of hopeful anticipation and optimism” for California with the current conditions, Busalacchi said, but the scientists’ message is to “not let your guard down.” Even if the state sees more precipitation, he explained, the combination of El Niño and a patch of warm water off the coast means it will probably be rain, which won’t replenish the critical Sierra Nevada snowpack.

When Busalacchi wrote his doctoral thesis on El Niño in 1982, he recalled, the phenomenon was little-known even in the scientific community. A powerful 1982-83 event changed that.

“At that time it was the El Niño event of the century and we didn’t know even what was going on. … We did not have the observations that we have today,” Busalacchi said. “When I defended my thesis, you’d go to a cocktail party, nobody knew about what El Niño was, and six months later everybody knew what it was as a result of the ’82-83 event.”

Now, the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array of dozens of buoys detects El Niño conditions, satellites observe the events’ biological effects, and computer models can predict an El Niño years in advance, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The other speakers at the briefing were David DeWitt, director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center; Lisa Goddard, director of Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society; and David Zierden, Florida state climatologist. DeWitt explained El Niño’s predicted impacts on the United States, while Goddard and Zierden discussed the importance of better El Niño forecasts that would allow farmers, water planners and others across the nation to plan more effectively for future events.