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What is El Niño, and what extreme weather is it bringing our way?

Here, we unpack the climate phenomenon, its devastating effects around the Pacific, and its knock-on impact across the globe

And now, to the weather report from Dazed Digital. Over the next five years, we could see global temperatures soar into uncharted territory, with a spike in extreme weather events thanks to El Niño. Moving into the second half of the 2020s, there’s a 66 per cent likelihood that temperatures will reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, rising faster than ever despite pledges of government action. And, up in the Arctic, temperature anomalies are expected to be up to three times as large as the global average, with climate scientists already warning that it’s too late to save the melting of summer ice.

It’s no secret that British life is just one long complaint about the weather. It’s too wet and cold. Winter lasts forever. Then summer arrives, and it’s too hot. We don’t have air conditioning, and the climate isn’t suited to high temperatures. Our sweat can’t evaporate, or something. And so on, and so on, until we die. It is undeniably true, though, that some years are worse than others, and climate scientists are predicting that we’re now entering a more extreme phase of the weather cycle.

Why? Well, partly thanks to manmade climate change, but also because of El Niño, a natural weather phenomenon marked by rising sea temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific. Last week (June 8), the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center issued an an alert about El Niño’s imminent arrival, after years of relative calm.

Below, we’ve gathered everything you need to know about El Niño’s return, from its potentially devastating impact on people living around the Pacific, to the knock-on consequences felt across the globe.


El Niño is a name used to describe the warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific that occurs every few years – AKA the warm phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Officially speaking, an El Niño event is declared when sea temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific rise 0.5 degrees celsius above the long-term average, and it can last several months.


La Niña is the cooling phase of the ENSO climate pattern, which sees sea surface temperatures drop to lower than normal. Again, this occurs once every few years and lasts several months. In fact, La Niña has been occurring for the last three years, potentially mitigating the effects of global warming – though it didn’t stop the UK from hitting 40 degrees celsius for the first time last year.

“We just had the eight warmest years on record, even though we had a cooling La Niña for the past three years and this acted as a temporary brake on global temperature increase,” said WMO Secretary-General professor Petteri Taalas in May. “The development of an El Niño will most likely lead to a new spike in global heating and increase the chance of breaking temperature records.”


With El Niño on the way, there’s an understandable concern about its effects. Regions close to the Pacific – including North and South America, China, southern Africa, and Australasia – are most likely to be affected, in some cases experiencing severe weather. Places like Ecuador and northern Peru, for example, experience drastic rainfall increases during transitional periods, which can destroy homes and cause electricity blackouts, while places like Australia and Indonesia may face drought and crop failure. Disruption to marine ecosystems also causes widespread damage to coastal economies.

On a broader scale, the transition to El Niño can disrupt the circulation of air across Earth’s surface. This doesn’t only cause higher temperatures, but also colder winter conditions in some places, such as North America, which may experience longer and harsher winters.


Since the UK is so far away from the Pacific, the conditions created by El Niño don’t have much of a direct effect. It could have some impact on our winters over the course of the next few years, as it interacts with other complex weather systems, but if we experience any extreme weather it’s likely to be pinned to other causes.

That being said, the chaos caused by El Niño around the Pacific may have a knock-on effect on the international economy, especially as it’s still in recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine. As previous El Niños decimated crops and tore apart infrastructure, Bloomberg notes, global inflation grew significantly and many economies took a long time to recover. Huge manufacturers, meanwhile, could have their supply chains cut off by adverse weather. In the UK, it’s easy to see how this could worsen the cost of living crisis.


Neither El Niño or La Niña have regular, predictable cycles, but we do know they’re coming at some point down the line. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), much of the world is still unprepared for the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather, despite loud calls for immediate action. 

Some countries, however, are investing in plans to prepare for the worst. Peru, for example, has dedicated more than $1 billion on climate and weather measures to prevent or contain the “significant risks” stemming from upcoming climate events including El Niño. China also recently announced ambitious water infrastructure projects to deal with looming droughts, but with a timeline of more than a decade, there’s no chance they’ll be ready in time for this warm phase of the ENSO cycle.

If panic about El Niño’s arrival proves anything, it’s that governments need to do more to prepare for (and counteract) our rapidly-changing climate. Otherwise, the forecast isn’t looking good.