El Nino’s Delay Spurs Memories of 2012 When It Never Came at All

Aug 15, 2014 5:00 am ET

Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) -- In 2012, forecasters and researchers entered the summer convinced an El Nino would form in the equatorial Pacific and its weather-changing effects would be felt around the world.

It never happened.

Now the specter of that failure has cast a shadow over similar predictions in 2014, with many wondering where this year’s El Nino is and if it will ever arrive.

“Waiting for El Nino is starting to feel like Waiting for Godot,” Michelle L’Heureux, a scientist at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center, wrote in her blog this week.

Yet, as others bail on their El Nino call, L’Heureux isn’t ready to give up. There are signs out there, she says, that still make 2014 feel different than the 2012 bust.

The problem two years ago was that after the waters of the Pacific warmed, a necessary component for an El Nino, the corresponding change in the atmosphere that forms the second piece of the puzzle never materialized.

The sky above the warm equatorial Pacific persisted in acting like the waters were still cool, a phase known as La Nina.

Without that atmospheric reaction to the warmer water, the anticipated changes to the weather patterns around the globe -- everything from a decreased monsoon in India to storms across the U.S. South and an early end to the Atlantic hurricane season -- failed to happen.

These lapses are what keep forecasters humble, Phil Klotzbach, lead author of Colorado State University’s hurricane outlook, likes to say. He knows the pain of 2012 all too well: His Atlantic seasonal forecast for that year was tied to an El Nino forming.

The chatter about this year’s looming El Nino pattern began back in January, or even before that. In some ways the predictions have echoed the confidence that many forecasters had in 2012. In other ways it has surpassed them.

In April, there were many in the forecasting community saying that this year would produce the strongest El Nino since a large one occurred in 1997-98, an event that raised the temperature on the earth and sent agriculture and energy markets around the world into turmoil.

For people thinking about money and the long-term implications an El Nino would have on markets this year, dire predictions for the Indian Monsoon, the price of cotton, sugar, palm oil, and demand for natural gas in the northern U.S. next winter began to emerge.

Well, here we are in the middle of August and nothing has happened. True, the Pacific has warmed up a few times, but the atmosphere failed to respond each time, according to data from the U.S. climate and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The predictions of a strong El Nino have been replaced by musings that if an event happens this year it will be mild, or at worst moderate. The image of 2012 seems to be growing larger in the rearview mirror.

This is where L’Heureux comes back in.

Some things are different now than they were two years ago, she says. First of all, the atmosphere in 2012 continued to look like a La Nina, a phenomenon that isn’t happening now.

Also, L’Heureux points out that “westerly wind anomalies,” often associated with an El Nino, are occurring around the International Dateline.

“Literally and figuratively, we may be witnessing the start of ENSO’s second wind,” L’Heureux wrote.

The climate center currently gives El Nino a 65 percent chance of forming later this year and the Australians say it is at least 50 percent. L’Heureux has said that the chances for an El Nino are still double what they would be in an average year.

That may be little comfort to those forecasters who were predicting big things for 2014, but it at least means that an El Nino pattern may still show up yet.