flooding in India
A flooded street in India during monsoon rains. Photo credit: Carol Mitchell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Global warming is approaching a tipping point during this century that could reawaken an ancient climate pattern similar to El Niño in the Indian Ocean, according to a study published in Science Advances by scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, the University of Arizona and the University of Texas at Austin.

If that tipping point comes to pass, floods, storms and drought are likely to worsen and become more regular, disproportionately affecting populations most vulnerable to climate change in the region.

The study presented computer simulations of climate change during the second half of the century which showed that global warming could disturb the Indian Ocean’s surface temperatures, causing them to rise and fall each year much more steeply than they do today. The seesaw pattern is strikingly similar to El Niño, a climate phenomenon that occurs in the Pacific Ocean and affects weather globally.

headshot of Fei-Fei Jin
Fei-Fei Jin

“Although paleo evidence suggested that this Indian Ocean El Niño occurred during the last glacial time under much colder conditions than today’s climate, climate models simulate its reawakening under much warmer climate owing to favorable changes of atmospheric and oceanic circulations in the Indian Ocean,” said Fei Fei Jin, co-author and professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

According to the research, if current global warming trends continue, an Indian Ocean El Niño could emerge as early as 2050.

Today, the Indian Ocean experiences very slight year-to-year climate swings because the prevailing winds blow gently from west to east, keeping ocean conditions stable. According to the simulations, global warming could reverse the direction of these winds, destabilizing the ocean and tipping the climate into swings of warming and cooling akin to the El Niño and La Niña climate phenomena in the Pacific Ocean.

For more see the SOEST website.

—By Marcie Grabowski