Scientists Say 2007 May Be Warmest Yet
Thursday, January 4, 2007; 2:48 PM
LONDON -- Deepening drought in Australia. Stronger typhoons in Asia. Floods in Latin America. British climate scientists predict that a resurgent El Nino climate trend combined with higher levels of greenhouse gases could touch off a fresh round of ecological disasters _ and make 2007 the world's hottest year on record.
"Even a moderate (El Nino) warming event is enough to push the global temperatures over the top," said Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research unit at the University of East Anglia.
The warmest year on record is 1998, when the average global temperature was 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the long-term average of 57 degrees. Though such a change appears small, incremental differences can, for example, add to the ferocity of storms by evaporating more steam off the ocean.
There is a 60 percent chance that the average global temperature for 2007 will match or break the record, Britain's Meteorological Office said Thursday. The consequences of the high temperatures could be felt worldwide.
El Nino, which is now under way in the Pacific Ocean and is expected to last until May, occurs irregularly. But when it does, winters in Southeast Asia tend to become milder, summers in Australia get drier, and Pacific storms can be more intense. The U.N.'s Food Aid Organization has warned that rising temperatures could wreak agricultural havoc.
In Australia, which is struggling through its worst drought on record, the impact on farmers could be devastating. The country has already registered its smallest wheat harvest in a decade, food prices are rising, and severe water restrictions have put thousands of farmers at risk of bankruptcy.
In other cases, El Nino's effects are more ambiguous. Rains linked to the phenomenon led to bumper crops in Argentina in 1998, but floods elsewhere in Latin America devastated subsistence farmers.
El Nino also can do some good. It tends to take the punch out of the Atlantic hurricane season by generating crosswinds that can rip the storms apart _ good news for Florida's orange growers, for example.
"The short-term effects of global warming on crop production are very uneven," said Daniel Hillel, a researcher at Columbia University's Center for Climate Systems Research. "I warn against making definitive predictions regarding any one season's weather."
What is clear is that the cumulative effect of El Nino and global warming are taking the Earth's temperatures to record heights.
"El Nino is an independent variable," Jones said. "But the underlying trends in the warming of the Earth is almost certainly a result of the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
Another more immediate effect of the rising temperatures may be political.