The powerful 2015-2016 El Niño has passed its peak but remains strong and will continue to influence the global climate, according to the latest update from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations.
The WMO said in a press release on Thursday that El Niño is expected to weaken in the coming months and fade away during the second quarter of 2016. “It is too early to predict whether there will be a swing to La Niña (the opposite of El Niño) after that,” the release said.
Eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean surface temperatures were more than 2 degrees Celsius above average in late 2015, providing evidence that the 2015-16 El Niño is one of the strongest on record, comparable with the 1997-98 and 1982-83 events, WMO said. However, the agency added, it is still too early to establish conclusively whether it was the strongest.
As typically happens, the most recent El Niño reached its peak ocean surface temperature during November and December, but has since declined by about half a degree.
Related: El Niño will likely peak during the Northern Hemisphere winter of 2015-16: U.S. National Weather Service
“We have just witnessed one of the most powerful ever El Niño events which caused extreme weather in countries on all continents and helped fuel record global heat in 2015,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas in the release. “In meteorological terms, this El Niño is now in decline. But we cannot lower our guard as it is still quite strong and in humanitarian and economic terms, its impacts will continue for many months to come,” said Taalas.
The 2015-2016 El Niño has been associated with a number of major impacts, including the raising of global temperatures. 2015 was the hottest on record by a wide margin because of the combination of the exceptionally strong El Niño and global warming caused by greenhouse gases, WMO explained in the release. The global average surface temperature was 0.76±0.1° Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. For the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1°C above the pre-industrial era, according to a consolidated analysis from the WMO.
In North America, El Niño affected temperature and precipitation patterns in the United States and Canada, and this is “expected to continue for the coming months,” WMO said in the release. The U.S. seasonal outlooks for February to April indicate an increased likelihood of above-average precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and below-average precipitation over the northern tier. Above-average temperatures are favoured in the North and West, and below-average temperatures are favored in the southern Plains and along the Gulf Coast, WMO reported.
Related: Hottest average global temperature ever recorded didn’t apply to Canada in 2015
Taalas noted in the release that lessons learnt from this El Niño will be used to further build resilience to weather-related hazards, which will increase as a result of climate change. “Scientific research conducted during this event will enhance our understanding of El Niño and the inter-linkages between this naturally occurring climate phenomenon and human-induced climate change,” he said.
The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is the result of the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. It has an irregular recurrence period of between two and seven years. Typically, El Niño peaks late in the calendar year and causes droughts and excess rainfall in different parts of the world.