A 2016 Climate Review and Continued Concerns for the 2017 Long Rains

Chris Funk

2016 in review – Exceptional El Niño and La Niña-like climate conditions

This posting will briefly review some aspects of 2016 climate and update our outlook for the 2017 March-June long rains (we remain pessimistic, although the outlook has improved somewhat).

2016 appears very likely to be the hottest year on record. Figure 1 shows annual NASA GISS global air temperature anomalies. The last point (2016) is based on January-November anomalies, since December data are not yet available. It seems that the massive 2015/16 El Niño helped release heat from the sub-surface of the ocean, resulting in the 2016 global air temperature anomaly (~+1°C) being substantially warmer than the previous 2001-2010 average (~+0.6°C). Ed Hawkins provides a very compelling representation o this warming spiral here. NASA also has a compelling new animation of OCO-2 satellite-based CO2 observations.

Figure 1. NASA GISS global air temperature anomalies.

Will this warming continue as a step up to a new ~+1°C ‘normal’ or will we return to more modest conditions in 2017? We will have to wait and see. What we do know, however, is that warming is already influencing food security. Somini Sengupta’s New York Times article discusses how ‘heat, hunger and war are forcing African’s onto a road on fire’, helping to fuel a dangerous and difficult increase in migration in the Sahel. Grace et al.’s 2015 paper identifies strong direct links between warming air temperatures and increased frequencies of low birthweight babies in Africa; very warm air temperatures can have direct negative impacts on mothers and infants. Warming likely increases risks of civil war in Africa and has non-linear negative impacts on economic production.

Recent FEWS NET research, however, has also highlighted another important way that global warming affects food security – by increasing the warmth of local Indo-Pacific sea surface temperatures. ‘Local’ in this sense means that we are seeing global warming manifest as localized pockets of very warm sea surface temperatures. This has important implications for climate prediction and drought early warning.

Pockets of localized very warm sea surface temperatures can enhance both El Niño-like and La Niña-like climate patterns. To illustrate this, we have prepared the following animation based on standardized January-February-March sea surface temperature from a single climate change simulation produced using the Canadian Earth System Model version 2, obtained from the Climate Explorer. The animation shows 1980-2030 sea surface temperatures, expressed as standardized anomalies from the 1961-1990 mean, with exceptionally warm (p<2.5%) regions identified with contours. The stretch in the image coloring goes from -2.5 to +2.5 standardized deviations. The point here is that as we enter the 21st century, we see pockets of very warm sea surface temperatures. Some of these anomalies look like El Niños, with warm conditions in the eastern Pacific. Some of these anomalies look like the West Pacific Warming Mode, with enhanced sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean. Some look like the first half of 2016 (El Nino). Some look like conditions in October-November-December of 2016 (La  Nina plus West Pacific Warming Mode).

Our animation of a single climate change simulation can be compared to a much less extreme animation based on the average of a large multi-model ensemble, also obtained from the Climate Explorer. The stretch and contouring here is the same as in the individual model. In this view of climate change, we tend to see a fairly even warming of the global oceans, and relatively few dramatic regions of warming until the 2020s. This animation provides a valuable assessment of how climate change may influence the oceans, on average, but this multi-model ‘average’ will not be what we will experience in any giver year. Rather, what we will experience will be sea surface temperature variations that resemble a single climate change simulation (i.e. like this animation) – which seems likely to produce stronger El Niño-like and La Niña-like climate conditions.

2015 and 2016 may,  unfortunately, have provided us with examples of such El Niño-like and La Niña-like variations. During 2015, as successfully predicted by global climate models and NOAA, we saw the onset of an exceptionally strong El Niño that helped produce severe droughts in Ethiopia, Southern Africa, and many other regions. Our article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’s (BAMS) annual climate attribution issue makes the case for anthropogenic enhancement of the 2016/16 El Niño to increased aridity and reduced runoff in Ethiopia and Southern Africa. In Southern Africa, current FEWS NET assessments indicate that the ‘worst affected areas of Zimbabwe and southern Somalia are expected to be in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) acute food insecurity during the lean season’, while ‘areas of Southern Madagascar are in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) during the lean season as households face larger gaps in their basic food needs’. Other chapters of the BAMS special issue find increases in heat, humidity, dryness, drought, cyclones, wildfires and tidal floods, and decreases in arctic sea ice and cold in the northeastern United States.

During the summer of 2016 we experienced a rapid transition from El Niño to La Niña-like conditions. The west Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean warmed dramatically while the the eastern equatorial Pacific cooled. These conditions formed the basis of our accurate forecast for below normal East African October-November-December rains. Recent FEWS NET assessments document these very poor rains in Somalia, Eastern Kenya and Southeastern Ethiopia and describe the related high levels of food insecurity – ‘Emergency (IPC Phase 4) is likely in some areas of Somalia, and among some households in Ethiopia, while Crisis is expected for other areas of Somalia, southeastern Ethiopia, and northeastern Kenya through May 2017.’ Current FEWS NET reports identify Crisis conditions in northern Somalia, and vegetation conditions there look very poor (Figure 2), with current conditions very similar to 2010. If East Africa experiences poor 20 17 long (March-June) rains, food security in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eastern Kenya are likely to deteriorate further, potentially resulting in conditions similar to 2010/11, which saw severe food emergencies in Kenya and Ethiopia and famine conditions in Somalia. The rest of this blog posting provides an outlook for the 2017 March-May long rains.

Figure 2. eMODIS NDVI for northern Somalia. Image obtained from earlywarning.usgs.gov.

A below normal long rainy season seems likely, given current sea surface temperatures

This section of our blog updates the forecast we provided in December, using November-December and just December sea surface temperatures, as opposed to the October-November December sea surface temperature data we used last month. For brevity, we do not recreate all the analysis provided last month, but merely update our results.

Before presenting our statistical forecast, we briefly review current conditions, based on the anomalies for last 30 days from NCEP/NCAR reanalysis data, provided by NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Figure 3 shows the past 30 day near-surface wind anomalies. Figure 4 shows anomalies of precipitable water (the total amount of water vapor in the atmosphere). Over the Indian Ocean and central Pacific the wind anomalies (Figure 3) continue to show a strong equatorial pattern associated with increased moisture convergence over the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool and decreased precipitable water over Eastern Africa (Figure 4). Over the eastern Indian Ocean the wind anomalies are very large (~7 ms-1). Over the western Indian Ocean and eastern East Africa we also find large (~-7 kgm-2) reductions in total precipitable water. CHIRP and NASA TMPA precipitation data (not shown) also show this strong dipole between East Africa/Western Indian Ocean and the Warm Pool region.

Figure 3. Near surface wind anomalies for the past 30 days.
Figure 4. Total precipitable water anomalies for the past 30 days.

We next examine the sea surface temperatures associated with this anomalous circulation. We use both November-December and December surface temperatures to highlight possible changes in climate conditions, since the Climate Prediction Center anticipates a transition towards ENSO-neutral conditions by early February. Figure 5 shows both November-December and December NOAA Extended Reconstruction sea surface temperature anomalies, expressed as standardized deviations from a 1981-2010 baseline. Both November-December and December exhibit very warm conditions in the warm pool and extra-tropics, with a characteristic ‘western V’ pattern combined with modestly cool central Pacific anomalies. This pattern appears to be driving the anomalous winds and moisture conditions shown in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 5. November-December and December sea surface temperature anomalies.

This sea surface temperature pattern is similar to the West Pacific Warming Mode. Figure 6 shows a time series of West Pacific Warming Mode index values, based on November-December data. What we see is that recent El Niño events are often followed by periods of high West Pacific Warming Mode index values, with current October-November West Pacific Warming Mode conditions similar to 2010.

Figure 6. Time series of West Pacific Warm Mode index values. Vertical black lines denote recent El Nino events.

As presented last month, we next examine (Figure 7) a scatterplot of the average November-December Warm Pool and North Pacific sea surface temperatures versus central Pacific sea surface temperatures. This analysis is shown for neutral and cool ENSO seasons. 2016 is shown with a red circle. The current conditions are pretty unique. What we see is a combination of very warm Warm Pool/North Pacific sea surface temperatures combined with just moderately cool east Pacific sea surface conditions. These unique conditions make it hard to identify analog seasons. The National Multi-Model Ensemble forecasts (Figure 8) for February to April predict a continuation of precipitation dipole between the East Africa/Indian Ocean and Warm Pool regions, similar to what we are seeing in the observations. The March-April-May ensemble climate forecast (not shown) has a similar dipole, but with a weaker intensity.

Figure 7. Scatterplot of November-December Warm Pool/North Pacific and Eastern equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature anomalies.
Figure 8. The National Multi-Model Ensemble February-March-April precipitation forecast.

We next repeat the cross-validated forecast procedure used last month, but based on both November-December and December sea surface temperature fields. Warm Pool, North Pacific and central Pacific sea surface temperatures are used as predictors. We also limit ourselves to making forecasts for just ENSO-neutral and cool seasons. It is very important to note that the March-June data used to train this forecast is just for part of East Africa – southeastern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and eastern Kenya. Hence this forecast only targets a limited region of the Horn, a region strongly influenced by equatorial Indo-Pacific climate anomalies and the Somali Jet.

Figure 9. Cross-validated forecasts of March-June East African rainfall.

The green dots in Figure 9 show our cross-validated forecasts based on November-December observations. The overall cross-validated skill is modest (R2=0.36), but the ability to distinguish between wet and dry seasons is good. The 2017 forecast based on November-December sea surface temperatures is -0.8Z±1.2Z (red star), where ‘Z’ denotes a standardized departure from normal. This suggests that a below normal season is likely but not all that certain. To capture some of the uncertainty associated with the current climate state, which has seen modest cooling over the last month in the warm Warm Pool and North Pacific regions, and modest warming over the cool Central Pacific region, we also present a forecast based on just December sea surface temperatures. This forecast is also below normal (-0.5Z,  blue star), but is less pessimistic than results obtained from November-December. For the -0.8Z forecast, the probability of rainfall being less than -0.5 is 60%. For the -0.5Z forecast, this probability would be 50%.

In summary, while current conditions are hard to interpret due to the unique conditions (Figure 7), we are currently seeing a strong overturning East Africa/Warm Pool circulation anomaly (Figures 3 and 4) that climate models predict lasting into February-March-April (Figure 8). Our statistical forecasts anticipate below normal long rains, and this outlook appears substantiated by current circulation anomalies. We will continue to update our analysis on a monthly basis.  As we transition out of La Niña-like conditions, we may see Warm Pool precipitation decrease, leading to a more favorable outlook for East Africa. For now, however, a below normal outlook seems warranted. One plausible scenario might be a poor start to the season, with normal rains later in the season.