BOM: We’re calling it, the 2015 El Niño is here

By Andrew B.


Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

We’re calling it.

The Bureau’s ENSO Tracker status has moved from ALERT to EL NINO, signalling the official declaration by the Bureau of Meteorology of El Niño 2015.



El Niño is often associated with drought in Australia. It may be cold comfort for those toughing out the current dry in parts of eastern Australia, but while El Niño certainly raises the risk of drought, it doesn’t guarantee it. Of the 26 El Niño events since 1900, 17 have resulted in widespread Australian drought.

El Niño has been around for millennia, and is essentially a shift in the climate patterns of the Pacific region driven by changes in the ocean. In the simplest terms, El Niño occurs when some of the warmest ocean waters in the world – northeast of Papua New Guinea, where the ocean can exceed 30C – shift east towards South America.

As the warmth shifts east, so does the cloud and rain, and Australia becomes dominated by big, dry, cloudless and rainless high-pressure systems.


El Niño explained


So what are the criteria to declare El Niño, and why did it shift this time and not last year?

Declaring an El Niño

The criteria for calling El Niño are on our ENSO Tracker page, and in short we need to see at least three of the four following things:

tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures at least 0.8C above normal (currently they are 1.1C above the mean, and April averaged 0.82C above);trade winds weaker than average (generally weak or even reversed since January 2015);the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) below –7 (it has been negative pretty much since July 2014);climate models are confident it will continue ( all models we survey say ocean temperatures will remain at El Niño levels at least into late 2015. 

Sea temperatures met the criteria for El Niño in April.

Why do we care about these four ocean and atmospheric phenomena in particular?

The modern definition of an El Niño centres on when the ocean warming drives changes in the atmosphere above it. Some of those changes in the atmosphere (such as a weakening of the trade winds) actually help the ocean warm even more. This in turn drives more changes in the atmosphere.

And around we go, in what’s called a “positive feedback” loop. Once a positive feedback loop is established between the ocean and the atmosphere, we call them “coupled”. And hence the El Niño is likely to be with us until the natural annual cycle of sea surface temperature ends the event early the following year.


The ocean and the atmosphere getting couply.

Warmer and drier outlook

We talked about an increase of the odds for El Niño last year, but as Jaclyn Brown wrote last week, an El Niño never fully developed, and a declaration was never made.

Last year, ocean temperatures along the equator warmed virtually everywhere, meaning little difference emerged between the east and west – and it’s this difference which drives a lot of the changes in the atmosphere.

The difference this time is that the western tropical Pacific Ocean is staying cooler, and the warmest areas are further east, driving bigger changes in the atmosphere. We also started 2015 with warm water already in the tropical Pacific, whereas last year it started from a cool base.

Apart from increasing the chance of drier conditions for many areas, El Niño can also bring higher daytime temperatures to the south, poorer snow seasons, lower streamflows, more heatwaves, longer frost season (cloudless nights in spring), later onset of the northern rains and higher fire danger.


El Niño often brings drier and hotter conditions in winter and spring.




The shift in atmospheric patterns also means fewer tropical cyclones – good for the coast but not so good inland where they can bring summer rain.

Right now, our outlook is actually for wetter than normal conditions in many areas – driven by warm water in the Indian Ocean. We explain why in our May Climate and Water video.



However winter and spring are the key times for Australia to experience El Niño impacts. Some areas are already in drought, particularly in Queensland and northern New South Wales, due to the failed northern wet season of 2012-13 and little recovery since. Western Victoria is also suffering long term rainfall deficiencies.

Why El Niño?

The name comes from Peru, where every few yeXears around Christmas (the time of the birth of Jesus “the Boy Child”, or “El Niño” in Spanish), the anchovy fishery would fail as warmer water replaced the normally cool, anchovy-rich water along the South American coast.

So that’s it in a nutshell – we have El Niño on our hands.

To keep yourself up to date with the latest Bureau information about El Niño, see our fortnightly ENSO Wrap Ups for the latest news, sign up to our email list to get the latest climate outlooks, and watch our climate and water videos.

Andrew B. Watkins does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Shipbuilder lays off another 80 workers

Shipbuilder BAE Systems has laid off another 80 workers at its Melbourne yard, with fears it will completely run out of work early next year.


From a peak of 1300 workers installing superstructure on new navy amphibious ships and constructing hull blocks for air warfare destroyers, the workforce has fallen to about 800.

BAE Maritime director Bill Saltzer they were a project-based business and employee numbers had to match the needs of ongoing and upcoming projects.

He said no new naval vessel contracts had been awarded since 2008.

BAE has already delivered the first of the two large landing helicopter dock ships, HMAS Canberra, with the second, to be named HMAS Adelaide, to be handed over later this year.

It’s completed all contracted hull blocks for the first two AWDs. The last eight blocks for the third AWD are now being constructed and will be progressively completed through to early next year.

“At that point, without new orders, all shipbuilding activity in Victoria will be completed,” the company said.

BAE Systems and other shipbuilders are plunging into the so-called “valley of death”.

That’s the period of years between the end of current naval ship projects and the start of construction of new frigates and submarines. Without work, companies will have to lay off much of their workforce.

Mr Saltzer said BAE was pleased at recent statements from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Defence Minister Kevin Andrews acknowledging the strategic importance of Australia’s naval shipbuilding industry and the need for a continuous production plan.

He said the company had been advocating this position for several years to avoid workforce reductions that were now becoming necessary.

“I am proud of the continuous improvements in productivity and quality that our shipbuilders have achieved since starting production on the LHDs and AWD blocks in 2010,” he said in a statement.

“We are ready to commit to even higher levels of efficiency if the government implements a naval ship procurement plan that supports continuous levels of production.”

NRL’s Knights stumped on Mullen injury

Newcastle coach Rick Stone says the club is still trying to get a diagnosis on a toe injury to halfback Jarrod Mullen who is unlikely to play against the Wests Tigers in the NRL this week.


Mullen was forced to withdraw from the City-Country fixture a fortnight ago and missed last week’s 30-10 defeat to Manly.

The 28-year-old saw specialists in Sydney on Monday but went to seek a second opinion in Newcastle on Tuesday in the hope of finding out the exact nature of the injury.

“We haven’t quite nailed an actual diagnosis for ‘Mullo’ and his big toe,” Stone said.

“There are a lot of bones in the foot there and we are trying to sort out exactly the diagnosis and then the procedure of his recovery.

“We might know a little bit more later this afternoon, but at this stage he’s going to be doubtful for this week, that’s for sure.”

After opening the season with four straight wins, the Knights have now lost five on the trot and will be desperate to get their chief playmaker back on the field.

Skipper Kurt Gidley deputised for Mullen last weekend, paving the way for promising youngster Sione Mata’utia to slot into fullback.

However Stone said he had a few more options to consider when the team host the Tigers on Sunday afternoon.

“Jarrod’s one of our key playmakers and I think most teams are really dented if they lose their key playmakers,” he said.

“First of all we need to go through the process and see the diagnosis and then we will make some adjustments to suit if we need to.

“We have obviously got some options. Young Jake (Mamo) played well in reserve grade as a fullback.

“Carlos Tuimavave played in the Samoan Test a couple of weeks ago as five-eighth and they are some genuine options for us there.”

Vic gun thieves eavesdrop on cops

Criminals listening to Victoria Police conversations on analog radios are tracking firearms safety officers and breaking into homes they visit to steal guns.


Acting chief commissioner Tim Cartwright said an upgrade of the radio system – now on its way – was much needed.

“This was the greatest threat to the operational safety of our members, particularly in rural Victoria,” he told a public accounts and estimates committee on Tuesday.

Firearms safety officers had to stop telling the operations room where they got out of their cars to check on secured guns.

“(Because) soon after that visit, we (would) have the property burgled,” he said.

Police Minister Wade Noonan said the government had provided $11.5 million to upgrade the rural radio system, with Victoria Police finding a further $23.8 million.

Mr Noonan also said police officers were now patrolling in pairs to reduce the threat of a terror attack.

Interim safety arrangements, which have been in place for six weeks, mean single-officer patrols are no longer allowed.

Mr Noonan said custody officers would be recruited to guard prisoners at police stations, freeing up police to get back on the beat.

“The 400 custody officers are very clearly about returning police to the front line,” Mr Noonan said.

A hearing into the Corrections Department revealed nine breaches by registered serious sex offenders since the start of 2015.

Six breaches were for non-compliance, while three were for sexual offences.

Earlier, Education Minister James Merlino said Victoria will chase the federal government for about $1 billion not yet set aside for the final two years of the Gonski education funding agreement.

Mr Merlino said the state was committed to finding funding for the final two years of the funding agreement in 2018 and 2019.

“We are going to pursue the federal government for years five and six,” he said.

NSW considers tough pedophile penalties

Pedophiles who prey on children under the age of 10 would face life in jail and their victims would be sheltered from re-traumatisation in the courtroom under a push from the NSW government.


Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton has introduced laws to parliament that would create a new catch-all offence of sexual intercourse with a child under 10, which would carry a maximum penalty of life behind bars.

“The devastating and lifelong impact of an offence committed under this section should carry the harshest potential penalty available,” Ms Upton told the lower house.

The maximum penalty now for raping a young child is 25 years’ jail, unless there are aggravating factors.

The bill also expands the standard non-parole period scheme to include 13 additional child sex offences.

Ms Upton hopes the changes will bring sentences into line with community expectations.

“The community rightly expects that offenders will pay for what they have done, for what they have taken from their victims – their innocence, their future, their dreams,” Ms Upton said.

“However, the community has seen sentences that have not aligned with our sense of right and wrong and our sense of balance.

“We’ve seen sentences which have left us questioning whether justice has really been done.”

Ms Upton also wants to introduce “children’s champions” to help sex abuse victims through the trial process.

She has promised a sexual offences taskforce to oversee a pilot program for specialist procedures to reduce re-traumatisation of child witnesses in sexual assault proceedings.

These might include allowing victims to pre-record cross examination evidence.

A second taskforce would examine options for chemically castrating child sex offenders, the attorney-general said.