El Niño is being blamed for the unusually warm winter across the plains of South Asia, as well as in other parts of the world
This year India has seen an exceptionally warm winter. With temperatures staying 5-6 degrees above normal, it is the warmest winter in decades.
“Every year there used to be fog. We used to wake up to thick dense fog every day and the visibility used to be poor. But this time there is no trace of it. There is plenty of sunshine when I go for morning walks. And usually in the afternoon, one has to remove all the sweaters. I haven’t used my overcoat this time. This is the warmest January I have ever seen,” Richa Chaudhary, a Delhi resident, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Neighbouring Pakistan is experiencing a warm winter too. The minimum temperature recorded in Islamabad so far this winter is 6 degrees Celsius. It was 4 degrees last year. In Lahore, the difference between the maximum and minimum temperatures this winter has been as high as 13 degrees Celsius, compared to 7 last year. The days, especially, are significantly warmer this year.
Muhammad Riaz, head of Pakistan Meteorological Department, told indiaclimatedialogue.net, “Difference in temperature in Islamabad as compared to last year is minimal but it is significant if we compare it with previous years.” He felt “Temperature in Lahore and Islamabad is relatively high this year because Pakistan has had less rainfall, fog and snowfall this year as compared to last year.”
There had been much heavier cloud cover over South Asia last winter, so maximum temperatures had been lower.
It is a warmer winter across the northern hemisphere. Parts of eastern US and Canada is experiencing this. So is Europe. Eastern US has seen over 2,600 new high temperature records in December alone.
Why is it a significantly warmer winter this year?
Scientists say it is due to a particularly strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), plus human influence in the earth’s weather system.
During an ENSO—which occurs every three to seven years—the water of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean warms up. This influences weather patterns worldwide, including the South Asian monsoon—2015 was a drought year.
Arvind Kumar Srivastava, former head of the National Climate Centre in Pune, it was not unusual to find winter temperature following an El Niño to be “milder” than normal. “But the current El Niño has been very strong and prolonged. So its impact is being felt in a more forceful manner.”
The current ENSO started in 2015 and scientists have described it as among the most powerful ones they have recorded. Some in the scientific fraternity have called it Godzilla. This is the third ‘super’ El Niño the world is witnessing and its impacts are likely to stay at least till May this year. The two previous ‘super’ El Niños were in 1982-83 and 1997-98.
The impacts of El Niño can be aggravated by global warming. A study published in January 2014 in Nature Climate Change predicted doubling of extreme El Niño events in future due to higher temperatures. Most scientists say more studies are needed to examine the link between climate change and El Niño. But almost all scientists agree that if climate change goes unabated, this could have a further impact on weather patterns and socio-economics of the world.
And agriculture could be the worst hit. According to Skymet, an independent weather monitoring company, temperatures in northern and central India have been the highest in the last five winters and hence crops could be affected.
There are concerns in India that rapeseed—an oilseed that grows in winter—can be hit particularly hard. A media report mentioned that India’s overall rapeseed production could fall by 7-8% from an estimated five million tonnes last year. India consumes 18-19 million tonnes of edible oil annually. It may have to import them from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Weather is influenced by multiple factors and local events play a significant role. There has been hardly any rainfall in northern India this winter, because the westerly winds that bring moisture from the Caspian Sea have been blowing north of their usual trajectory. That brings more snow to the Himalayas, but little rain in the plains. The weatherman says it is not going to get colder in the near future, even if the plains get a couple of foggy and rainy days.