Short-Sleeves on Christmas Eve: El Niño or Climate Change?

Having lived in Boston most of my life, I am used to weird weather. Seventy degrees in the middle of January? I’ve experienced that. Soul-crushing 6-foot piles of snow? Been there. Two full months of non-stop rain? My regularly-flooded basement could tell you stories. So when the weather turned strange along the northeast corridor these past few months, I was not surprised. Sure, it was warmer than usual, but as the saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.”

What was a little eyebrow-raising for me was the attribution to the El Niño, the periodic equatorial Pacific circulation pattern that reverses normal precipitation patterns. Articles started popping up all over the web saying this recent warming stint was obviously due to El Niño. Uh, what?

El Niño? Really? Isn’t that just a west coast thing? I lived in the Boston area for 30 plus years and through all the wild and wacky weather, El Niño was never mentioned once. Not once. So I thought, well, maybe in all my time there living as a citizen, as a student, and throughout my training as a biologist studying forest systems in the northeast…maybe I just missed the repeated and obvious references to the El Niño over the years. Maybe. But unlikely.

So, I decided to make a few calls. Calls to people who had lived in the Northeast even longer than me. Whom did I call? Well, I called my dad first. A Bostonian for 50+ years, he now resides in a comfortable and conservative (yes they exist in the northeast!) suburb outside of the city. In all these years of residing in the northeast, had he ever heard about the crazy weather being attributed to El Niño?

He paused and scoffed, “Are you insane? No.” (He used nicer words; he is my dad after all). I asked him what he attributed this warm weather to, and he said, “Climate chaos.”

Huh, I thought. He’s certainly experienced some of the worst of it. So what about my mom who has spent her entire life in the northeast? “El Niño?” she laughed “No, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the El Niño affecting the weather here.”

I called my mother in-law. Nope. I called my friends. Nope. Ok, we’re building some anecdotes certainly—but at the very least I did not miss the El Niño discussions. So why is it suddenly the best possible explanation now?

I’m pretty lucky, because not only do I have a network of New Englanders to bug about these questions, but also scientists that I can call. I share my office with a geologist—a lifelong Californian who knows his way around an El Niño. You know him as Steve Newton, programs and policy director here at NCSE. I know him as Encyclopedia Brown.

When I asked Steve about this, he told me that El Niño’s effects are more pronounced on the west coast than the east. “It’s not something that greatly affects the east coast,” he told me.

But Steve is a geologist, not a climatologist, so I wrote Penn State climatologist Michael Mann about this. Was this recent warm weather in the northeast really due to El Niño?

He wrote me back right away:

“I’ve been fielding some press inquiries about this. I’ve pointed out that this is a deeply flawed argument. Yes, El Niño is part of it. So are the vagaries of weather. But so too is human-caused climate change. We’ve had weather before, we’ve had big El Niños before. We have never, at least during my adult life, had anything like this before. Near 80 degrees Fahrenheit in DC on Christmas Eve day? That’s not “weather” and it’s not “El Niño”. It is something more.”

He elaborated more in this article from Vice:

“What's warming the East is a combination of the fickleness of ordinary weather, the cyclical Pacific warming phenomenon known as El Niño and the planetary warming already resulting from human-produced carbon emissions…We've had very strong El Niños in the past. We've had unusual weather fluctuations in the past…But the fact that we're talking about not just extreme but unprecedented conditions — mid- to upper 70s over a large swath of the eastern US on Christmas Eve, something we haven't seen before — speaks to the exacerbating effects of human-caused climate change."

In this same article, Kevin Trenbeth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, discussed this further:

"With even a modest warming of the globe comes dramatic increases in the likelihood of extreme individual warm spells and heat waves, like the one we are seeing…Add global warming to the mix and you get a veritable 'perfect storm' of conditions favoring heat spells like the one we're seeing right now."

So it looks like it is a little of both—an El Niño exacerbated by something known as…climate change. Shocking to my New Englander soul, but also a good explanation of why in all my years—and my parents’ years—El Niño was never really on our radar. What we are seeing is, as Michael Mann said, “Unprecedented”, and it looks like the media is doing a “wicked” (to use a Boston term) bad job covering this. It’s not obviously El Niño—it’s surprisingly El Niño, and it is being exacerbated by something we call climate change.

Photograph by Kevin Turner via Flickr