Thursday, February 22, 2024

El Niño doesn’t care that NZ exists

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Climate drivers like El Ninõ will influence the weather but there are also other factors in play in our tiny island nation.
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By Philip Duncan, WeatherWatch

To those who say “So much for El Niño!”, I say “Why do you want it so badly?”

New Zealand and Australia have had an unusual El Niño, but having areas of rain doesn’t mean El Niño doesn’t exist. 

Two things can be true. You can have the aircon on in your car – but the window down too. You can swim with sharks – and not be eaten. You can be in a car crash and not be injured. So too can you be in an El Niño and not have drought, or hot, windy, westerlies. In fact the past few months of weather in NZ have highlighted something I exhaustively say year after year: our location on earth means anything can happen.  

Two of the previous three La Niña events brought drought to the North Island (believe me, in Geography in high school they teach you the opposite, because usually La Niña makes for more sub-tropical lows, cyclones and rain).

So am I surprised not everyone is dry this summer? Not at all.

Let me put this another way: We can have a warmer winter when it should be colder. So we can also have a wetter, calmer, El Niño when in the past it has been windier, drier and hotter. 

Why? Very simple: It’s down to the size of our tiny nation, way out at sea and halfway between the equator (where we measure El Niño and La Niña) and Antarctica.

And, of course, it’s the Southern Ocean / Roaring Forties belt of weather that circles Antarctica which dominates NZ’s weather most often. 

For NZ, the Southern Ocean’s weather is the Goliath to the equator’s David. But – and here’s the important part – for the rest of the planet and international news media it is the other way around. 

El Niño is the Goliath to them and they couldn’t care less about what’s happening down in the Southern Ocean – to them that’s “David”.

“Okay Phil, so if you and all your fancy computers and AI are so good, why aren’t I getting El Niño weather at my farm?” you may ask. 

This is because El Niño doesn’t care that you even exist. 

It’s a climate driver measured mostly out towards Ecuador, South America, and the equator – a long way away from NZ. All it takes to break NZ’s entire three-month summer outlook is simply the placement of one or two high pressure zones during that entire time. 

That is all it takes.

This summer high pressure has been further south than we’d normally (past 100 years only) see during El Niño and that has big consequences to NZ’s entire weather pattern. 

A small shift with a monumentally big impact. From a global point of view you’d hardly notice it. But from a NZ point of view, it’s the driver of 100% of our complaints about “you guys can’t predict anything”. 

We all need to understand variables. 

There is simply not enough history and data to help join all the dots to forecast for you to say “this is precisely coming, this is what it precisely means”.

So we have to use gut instinct, common sense – and apply that to the most accurate (but not perfect) forecasts on earth. 

This sounds daft, maybe, but if you blur your eyes a little that data is actually extraordinarily accurate. 

Expectations in our tiny, vulnerable, isolated, island nation are that we should be able to tell you three months from now what will happen on your farm. We cannot.

All we can do – with great accuracy I might add – is say climate drivers like El Niño and La Niña are coming and they can influence our weather.

But, as my dad’s favourite “chaser”, Shaun Wallace (the “Dark Destroyer”) from TV1’s The Chase, always says:  “At the end of the day, it’s just another day at the office.” 

That’s New Zealand’s weather – regardless of El Niño, La Niña or however our climate is changing due to our remarkable location on Planet Earth, anything can happen here, even if there is a theme in play.

This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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