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The global weather stories of the year? Mine are heat and hurricanes

El Niño combined with ongoing global warming to set yet another temperature record and also fuelled major hurricanes and typhoons

I figured I would begin our look back at 2015’s weather from a global perspective and then zoom into North America, Canada, and Western Canada in particular, in an upcoming article.

I have to pretty much agree with the top two 2015 global weather stories that nearly every website has come up with — 2015 saw Earth’s hottest year in recorded history and the strongest El Niño event in recorded history.

While there were some other weather firsts that occurred during 2015, it’s pretty hard to argue against these two events winning out. Actually, we probably wouldn’t have had one without the other. I say that because El Niño helps to contribute extra heat energy into the atmosphere, raising global temperatures already running on the high side due to global warming. The warmer global temperatures, in turn, help to increase the already warm ocean temperatures leading to an even stronger El Niño event.

Let’s begin by looking at global temperatures in 2015.

The final numbers have finally been released by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA, and as predicted, 2015 easily beat 2014 as the warmest year since reliable records began in 1880. According to NOAA, in 2015 Earth’s average temperature was 0.87 C above average. This compares to 0.73 C in 2014, which makes 2015 the greatest increase in the temperature record ever recorded.

Coinciding with the warmest year on record is the record El Niño event that is beginning to wind down across the Pacific. As we moved into 2015, a weak El Niño event was already developing in the Pacific and forecasters were calling for a very high chance that this particular El Niño event would become strong — possibly record strong. By July, temperatures in the key El Niño region of the Pacific had warmed enough for it to be classified as a strong event and by November, ocean temperatures peaked at 3.1 C above average, which broke the one-week record of 2.8 C set during the El Niño event in 1997. The final classification for an El Niño event uses a three-month average and this finds 2015’s event tied with the one in 1997, with a reading of 2.3 C above average.

While we know that El Niño can bring milder-than-average temperatures to Western Canada during the winter, overall El Niño tends to warm global temperatures by as much as 0.1 C as extra heat from the ocean is transferred into the atmosphere. While El Niño is slowly weakening and is expected to become neutral sometime late this spring or summer, it will continue to dump extra heat into the atmosphere. This, combined with ongoing global warming, will likely result in the Earth seeing her third straight record for the warmest year in 2016.

The global weather event for 2015 that I am going to list as third is really several different weather events that were all similar in nature. They are also partially tied into the record-warm global temperatures and El Niño.

What I am talking about are hurricanes.

While the Atlantic basin saw a relatively quiet hurricane season, this was not the case around the world. First of all, the Western Hemisphere saw its most powerful hurricane on record during 2015, when hurricane Patricia became a Category 5 storm on Oct. 23 off the coast of Mexico. At its peak, Patricia had sustained winds of 320 kilometres per hour and a central pressure of 879 millibars.

This composite image of tropical cyclone activity across the Pacific in 2015, shows the islands of Hawaii (light blue colour in the centre of the graphic) were largely unaffected.

This composite image of tropical cyclone activity across the Pacific in 2015, shows the islands of Hawaii (light blue colour in the centre of the graphic) were largely unaffected.
photo: Supplied

The northeast Pacific saw a record 11 major hurricanes, which broke the previous mark of 10 set in 1992. The central Pacific was also busy with 14 named storms, eight hurricanes, and five major hurricanes that either formed in this region or tracked into it. This broke all three of the old records (which were 10 named storms, five hurricanes, and three major hurricanes).

Record-high ocean temperatures along with lower-than-usual wind shear due to the strong El Niño helped to create an environment that was very conducive to hurricane development. Interestingly, if you check out one of this week’s graphics, which is a composite image of tropical cyclone activity across the Pacific, the region around Hawaii was largely unaffected.

The southern Pacific also saw an active hurricane season (or typhoon as they are called in that part of the world). The most interesting was tropical cyclone Pam that hit Vanuatu as a Category 5 storm with sustained winds in the 265-kilometres-per-hour range. With a central pressure of 896 millibars, it was the second-strongest tropical cyclone ever measured in that part of the world. It was also only the 10th time a Category 5 tropical cyclone was recorded in this region.

About the author

AF Contributor

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the University of Winnipeg. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park, Manitoba.


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