Digital Diatribes

A presentation of data on climate and other stuff

El Nino is back with the Fury of a Woman Scorned!

Posted by The Diatribe Guy on September 30, 2009

OK, not really. But the headline is kind of catchy, no?

El Nino is, in fact, back. And to hear some of the early prognostications about it, we would all melt like the Wicked Witch of the West mighty soon. And this was going to prove once and for all that global warming was real, because – we heard – the recent cooler temperatures were a byproduct of recent La Ninas. (Please forgive my laziness in not including the squiggly lines over my n).

I admit to not quite understanding that argument. The skeptics among us have pointed out that the increase in global temperatures that took place a decade ago were driven by a Super El Nino. And at the time, we heard that global warming was causing more severe El Ninos. But then the severity decreased and we had La Nina, and we were told that such statements were never really made. Or, at least, not by serious scientists. Which, if true, would mean that they should have agreed that the increase in warming at that time was exacerbated by the big and mean El Ninos. (Which, as an aside, brought very enjoyable winters in the Midwest. Why do people want to send us really cold weather all the time?) But other than some footnoted statements on page 23 of the reference section in a boring document, few people have been told the story about how El Nino affects should be viewed independently from overall warming.

That is, they didn’t know this until La Nina affects brought us some cooler temperatures. Then, suddenly, we heard about some “unusually cold” La Ninas, and how this affected global temperatures, and skeptics were being disingenuous by not properly considering that. And to the extent that such a criticism is true, they are right. But there is a strange thing that happens when ideology is part of the equation: you fail to heed your own criticism when the reverse occurs.

And so we have now seen three consecutive measures above 0.5 in the ENSO index. This is hardly unusual, but it does qualify – to my understanding – as a true El Nino. And before that, the La Nina waned, so we had a relatively neutral index for a couple months leading up to El Nino. So it’s been 5 consecutive measurements now since the La Nina has ceased. I remember when it became evident that an El Nino was on the way. This was going to prove skeptics wrong! Why? I have no idea. If El Nino had an anomaly of 1.00, 2.00, or 5,432.00 it would not prove anything other than when there is a natural warming of the Ocean, it warms our global temps. Wow… there’s a revelation. The fact that this has nothing to do with Carbon emissions is beside the point when it fits the argument.

Even stranger, skeptics tend to accept the cyclic variations as the legitimate explanation for warming. We don’t dispute warming periods. So, the skeptic will nod and agree that an elevated ENSO index will probably lead to warmer global temperatures. But then, we kindly point out, don’t blame carbon. Or people. And don’t get all in a tizzy when a La Nina comes around and we see cooler temperatures. What the hell do you expect? Sorry it doesn’t fit the model.

Having said all that, I certainly don’t expect any records to be broken in this recent El Nino. Sorry, experts. I base this simply on data analysis, admittedly knowing very little about all the climatolological influences that could prove me wrong. But what does the data indicate? Looks like it’s time for a chart:


ENSO Data as of 200908

The first observation from the data is that we’ve had four consecutive positive anomalies, and three consecutive positive anomalies greater than 0.5. Note here that a single data point is actually a two-month running average, which helps smooth out month-to-month fluctuations. The latest reading is 0.978, which is the largest of the four positive anomalies. Prior to this period, there were 9 consecutive negative anomalies, with a stretch of 7 months less than -0.50. This was on the heels of only a two month set of barely positive anomalies after a stretch of 12 consecutive negative anomalies that included an eith-month stretch less than -0.5.

So, it is pretty clear that after some real solid La Nina-esque reality, we’ve now flipped to El Nino. What is not clear is the ultimate magnitude and persistence of our new friend, Mr. Nino. But we can talk likelihoods. And for that, we observe the path of the best-fit sine wave.

The red curve below has been fitted in accordance with the other Ocean Oscillations I have observed. Take a sine wave and manipulate it in a few ways in order to ascertain the minimum least-squares deviation from the curve. You see, while El Nino exhibits noticeable short-term variation, it seems to do so about a longer-term cyclical pattern. Thus, a large deviation in one direction at point A on the curve will not produce the same magnitude El Nino at point B on the curve.

The specifics of the best-fit curve are as follows: The 1950 starting point in the data looks to be at 268 degrees in the full 360 degree cycle. The length of the best-fit curve appears to be 102 years for a full cycle. This is an imperfect estimate, since we don’t even have 102 years of data. It is also a longer fit than what was made last year when I did a similar exercise. But the calculation is what it is.

You can see from the chart that the magnitude of ENSO events can have quite a range: -2 to +3 in the data provided. The scale factor applied to the wave is +1.24 in order to achieve the best fit. However, it looks as if the anomalies in the index may be significantly overstated, at least near the beginning of the curve. The best fit line requires an upward shift of all values of the curve of +0.98. This means that the early part of the curve should have appeared “colder” than it did. The interesting thing to me is that, despite the apparent rise in the average ENSO index levels, the best-fit curve actually has a negative linear slope element to it that is pretty significant: -0.00316, or -3.792 degrees Celsius per Century. This actually means that those high El Nino anomalies are centered around a curve that, without that negative trend line, would have been significantly higher – possibly as much as a degree and a half.

So, where are we now? We are 122 degrees into the cycle, which means we have a ways to go into the negative yet, if this best-fit curve is correct. While it appears to the eye that we’re past the 180-degree point, this is not so because of the negative linear slope the curve lies along. No, if this is right, we will not reach the minimum depth of the ENSO curve until around 2050. The curve itself has a staggering implication of coldness – what was a depth of around -0.4 degrees in the 1950s would be -4.0 degrees in 2050. Should we proceed along these lines, we can continue to expect positive and negative significant deviations from the curve, as we see today. But the positive deviations will produce fewer, shorter and less severe El Ninos while the negative deviations produce more, greater and more persistent La Ninas.

OK, here’s the good news: unlike climate modelers, I don’t proclaim this analysis to be infallible. First of all, we’re fitting the best curve to data that is quite variable in its short-term fluctuations. Second of all, the best-fit curve tells us that the cycle period is a longer period than the data period for which we are evaluating. I already know that this supposed cycle period has fluctuated quite a bit from analysis a year ago.

If I had to rank my certainty on the subject, I would bet confidently that (1) there is a long-term ENSO cycle of somewhat indeterminate period, probably somewhere between 60 and 100 years, (2) that we are entering the negative phase of the cycle and we can expect less severe El Ninos and more severe La Ninas.

I am far less certain about the linear trend of the cycle, and the extent of any such trend, as I am about the shift of the curve. These elements are probably much better measured as more data arises over time.

However, in any case, I think it looks very unlikely that we will see any record-breaking El Ninos for quite some time, in either persistence or in magnitude. We may, however, see some major La Ninas surface over the next few decades.

And that won’t be our fault, either.


13 Responses to “El Nino is back with the Fury of a Woman Scorned!”

  1. Mike said

    You know, when someone first mentioned “El Nino” I thought it was a defined climate event like a hurricane or some such. It was only after I looked to find the definition of an “El Nino” event that I realised that “El Nino” was flung around by weather people much as common folks say: its a NICE day. We all know what we mean by “NICE”, but it really doesn’t have any defined physical character – it is just a kind of weather/climate which some people think is a little different.

    Which then begs the question: If you have a period of natural warming as we are having, and is the whole period a “nice” event, or does a “nice” event have to be an extra nice day? Or to put that another way, are El Nino/Nemo/Ninja or whatever relative to an absolute condition or relative to the long term relative climate – or does anyone really care except weather men trying to make the weather sound interesting?

    • Bob H. said

      El Nino actually is an event, although a much longer one than the typical snow storm or hurricane for that matter. It will last for up to several months and has a considerable influence over the weather patterns in North America. El Ninos tend to drop more snow over the middle and eastern parts of the United States by shifting the location of the jet stream. I’m not a climatologist, so I can’t give you the gory details of how and where everything moves to an El Nino, but suffice it to say there is a significant natural effect.

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  3. Bob H. said

    Good Morning Joe,
    Very interesting analysis; the one thing I’m wondering iw whether there is a correlation between the PDO and ENSO, since the ENSO is essentially a subset of PDO. Since the PDO has now gone negative and will continue to fall for the next 20 or so years, your analysis is reasonable. I would expect approximately the same overall period for ENSO as for PDO, but with a phase shift. Your thoughts?

    BTW, since we have gotten some new sunspots, I’ll need to freshen up the sunspot post. Have a good day.

  4. The Diatribe Guy said

    Bob, in past analysis I’ve done, it looks like there is a definite correlation between the two, as expected. I’ll be getting to PDO updates at some point, soon hopefully.

  5. docattheautopsy said

    So I hear that weak El Ninos make for a cold Northeast. My question– does that mean it’s going to be cold here in Wisconsin?

    I just don’t want to do much shoveling…

  6. The Diatribe Guy said

    It’s interesting to me how El Nino affects weather in different areas. Different areas get wetter, some get drier. Some, but not all areas, get a little warmer.

    It’s my understanding that an El Nino is correlated with milder northern U.S. winter weather. If the last two winters on the heels of La Nina are an indication, La Nina sucks for us. I’m guessing/hoping that thsi one won’t be as bad.

    Sometimes I think we “skeptics” and “deniers” perversely start hoping it is a really bad winter, with the idea that then maybe people will see the light and not do things like implement Carbon Taxes and stuff. But if I’m just looking at things from a high level view, as I understand them, I just don’t think we’re in for a horrible winter here. Now, if the El Nino doesn’t strengthen any more than it is now, it probably won’t be as mild as some of those glorious winters in the early 1990s. But it will probably be around average or a little warmer than average, and probably not an above-average aount of precipitation.

    My assessment doesn’t seem to agree with some other experts or the Old Farmer’s Almanac, so it’s entirely possible that I’m just a data guy making this too simple without a clue.

    Caveat: should we suddenly snap into a La Nina, all bets are off. The effects of that probably wouldn’t hit immediately, but could make for a harsh winter later on. I’m making my prognostications based on the idea that this sudden shift won’t happen.

    • docattheautopsy said

      I just don’t think we’re in for a horrible winter here.

      If it gets cold and snowy, I’m signing you up for a few hundred spam lists. 🙂

  7. John Nicklin said

    And that won’t be our fault, either.

    Iys always our fault. Too warm, too cold, too dry, too hot, its our fault. We control the climate. I don’t know how, but THEY say its true, and they have a tree in Russia that proves it.

    I’m beginning to think that Wonko the Sane from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was right, we need to put the world in an asylum to protect the innocent.

  8. Mike said

    The tipping Point has been reached!

    The news that Steve McIntyre has finally got his hands on the raw data underpinning the infamous hockey stick of global warming started to leak out last week. First it was in a couple of “oddball” publications (admittedly one in the Telegraph – but the other was much more balanced:, then it was in the spectator (

    I personally always knew there was something wrong with the hockey stick, because I have read far too many historical textbooks talking about climate change as a fact (at least in the historical accounts), to find it credible that the world’s climate was apparently almost completely stable until global warmers started investigating it. But now, my hunch has been proved right! It turns out that the whole global warming “event”, comes from the interpretation of data from just a dozen trees somewhere in the north of Russia. Not only is a very very small sample, but those dozen trees were cherry picked because they fitted the hockey stick, and ones that would indicate recent cooling i.e. they discarded trees that suggested global temperature recording might not be as accurate as we are told and might be e.g. subject to urban heating – or simply that there is a lot of variability in the tree proxy and nothing concrete about the prehistoric temperature record can be reliably stated!

    So basically, all those papers that were written discussing “global warming”, were discussing the pattern of growth of 12 cherry picked trees – picked because their growth pattern showed warming whilst those that did were discarded.

    So what has been the response – well not a lot!

    Except, for you data geeks, I can put a figure on that. For the last three months I have been monitoring the news on global warming and news on global has consistently been shown by google within the top 6. Mostly 2nd or 3rd, but only a handful of occaisions has it been out of the top 20.

    And today … it is number 96!

    It’s like a bunch of kids playing around some cars … and no one is admitting anything, but suddenly they are all trying to pretend they were not there and you know something has happened and you are just wondering which car has been damaged.

    Well, it’s like that with the news media – they don’t want to admit that what they have been printing for the last few years as a cheap sensational filler between the serious stuff has just been shown to be complete bull’s excrement, but ….

    … but politicians are like dinosaurs – even if you kick them between the legs, their nervous system is so primative that it takes a decade for the nerve impulse to reach their brain and for them to do anything. So, we know it is going to happen, sooner or later, they’ll suddenly realise … and will they look embarrassed … not on your nelly … brains the size of peas, skin as thick as bricks!

  9. Mike said

    The more I think about the “global warming scandal” the more I realise just how big this thing is going to get. Afterall it throws an extremely poor light on not only those directly involved, but on the whole on climate “science” which has abysmally failed to ensure adequate peer review which is by association going to undermine the whole credibility of the rest of science which draws much of its credibility from that same peer review process.

    For more background see:

    It is hard to think of a bigger scandal in science, not only terms of the length of time this miuse of data has remained undetected, not only in terms of the way this data was then repeated and repeated by people with no apparent cross checking, but also in terms of the sheer scale and high profile nature of the public deception regarding supposed “exceptional” nature of the 20th century temperature rise.

    I’ve been trying to think of comparisons. Cold fusion was never widely accepted, similarly MMR. All I can think of is Piltdown man (an ape bone with humans as an early human) but did it ever have the same common parlence as “global warming”?

    Unless something miraculous turns up soon, unless Steve McIntyre is proven to be a complete fraud, temperatures skyrocket … but I’ve not even seen ardent global warmers trying to defend this data.

    I think this story is going to be the biggest scandal to hit science in many generations!

  10. The Diatribe Guy said

    Well, the latest RSS anomaly will give them a boost. September’s number came in a bit on the warm side of things. Likely in response to the current El Nino event.

    But could we already be seeing the waning of El Nino? The previous three values had increased, and the July/August anomaly was near 1.00. The August/Sept anomaly, however, has come down quite a bit – lower than the three previous readings, and that probably means the monthly reading in September was down to around 0.5-ish.

    I’m hoping it stays elevated for a little bit yet to improve our chances of a milder winter. But a couple more months of declines like that could spell a cold end to the winter season. I still think the first half of winter will be milder here, but this El Nino simply may not have the legs to sustain itself. Of course, given the chart above it’s not a complete surprise if that ends up being the case.

    • Mike said

      But diatribe, that is the mind set of the global warmer. They are the kind of people who see a couple of flies and believe there is a plague, see a snowflake and think it is winter. A few “good” results and they’ll forget that the general trend is cooling. 10 wood cores that show warming, and they’ll forget there were another 20 that showed cooling.

      But the real problem is that we suddenly got a new field of “science” which attracted all the neo-pagan new-age drug-smoking (OK there I have no evidence but you get the idea). I remember one of these guys at a high profile conference was brought in as “THE EXPERT” on climate change. Afterwards I got talking about the North Atlantic drift (falsely called the gulf stream) which these “experts” had told us would “switch off”. I happened to mention that my schoolboy atlas (literally the one I had at school) showed the East coast of both the Atlantic AND pacific being warmer, and this was due to the prevailing currents which the book had said was driven by prevailing winds and the earth spin.

      I had expected a “of course it’s more complicated than the summary I gave in the talk”. Instead I got a “never heard of that” as if this so called expert who had been telling us the Gulf stream was going to switch off had not the slightest clue about even basic facts about ocean currents, like most are driven by winds … most are the kind of people I saw struggling in University – who couldn’t understand even basics like the difference between correlation and coincidence, who only scraped by with a third class degree and who hadn’t a chance of a decent job until … global warming suddenly created a huge new career opportunity.

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