El Nino not official, but prepare for a scorching summer

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Climate experts are predicting a long and hot Australian summer with increased risk of drought and heatwaves despite the lack of an El Nino declaration from the Bureau of Meteorology.

The prediction follows record-breaking 2023 winter weather, during which the national mean temperature was 1.53 degrees above the average temperature from 1961 to 1996.

A long, hot summer is on its way. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

UNSW Canberra climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick said it was “undoubtable” that global warming was driving the hotter conditions.

“It’s not rocket science anymore,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick said. “There’s really no other explanation.”

“It’s not to say that we will have the absolute worst heatwave season we’ve ever seen on record, but it’s certainly going to be a bad one.”

June, July and August were the warmest since national records began in 1910, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Encouragingly, the eastern seaboard has had back-to-back La Nina cycles bringing cooler and wetter conditions, meaning the past two years of above-average rainfall delivering enough moisture to buffer against the swift onset of drought.

“I wouldn’t say a drought is developing at this stage, or that we’re heading into the conditions like the Black Summer,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick said.

“That drought was very intense. It took a couple of years to develop and we haven’t had the time yet for things to dry out.”

The Bureau of Meteorology has issued an El Nino alert, indicating a 70 per cent chance the weather system will form, but is waiting to see if the right atmospheric conditions eventuate before formally declaring the event is under way.

Australia’s bureau has become an outlier among global weather agencies by declining to declare an El Nino event, which is typically associated with hot, dry summers in south-east Australia leading to increased risk of drought and bushfires.

Weather agencies made their El Nino declarations based on the unusually high sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, which drive hotter weather on land.

The bureau is waiting to see the second phenomenon associated with El Nino events, which is weakening of trade winds that blow around the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

Breakdown of usual wind patterns means moisture in the atmosphere that typically rains on Australia’s east coast doesn’t arrive.

Professor Mark Howden, from the Australian National University’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, said while not all the El Nino markers used by the bureau were in place, temperatures were edging up towards uncharted territory in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

“I don’t think we should get hung up too much about definitions. We should actually be looking at the functional importance of these things,” Howden said.

The northern hemisphere sweltered through record-breaking heatwaves this year and there were severe bushfires in Europe and North America. The World Meteorological Organisation declared July the hottest month on record globally, driven by soaring temperatures in the water between Japan and Canada in the North Pacific, as well as the North Atlantic.

Howden said that a similar scenario was playing out in the southern hemisphere for Australia and that hot water was pooling in the central Pacific Ocean.

“It’s very hard to see that we’re not going to be significantly hotter than average.”

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