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El Niño could bring record heat in 2024

Despite a crushing winter storm currently working its way across the United States, some scientists are predicting that 2024 “may beat 2023 as the hottest year in recorded history,” according to Bloomberg reporting from Zahra Hirji, Olivia Rudgard, and Brian Kahn.

“In 2023, the average was about 1.4C higher than the pre-industrial era; early estimates suggest this year will be up 1.3C to 1.6C,” they report.

One of the main drivers behind that prediction, the Bloomberg article reports, is the continuation of El Niño into 2024. El Niño, according to Reuters, is “a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific, and can provoke extreme weather phenomena from wildfires to tropical cyclones and prolonged droughts.”

“Since El Niños usually take months to peak, there’s also a ‘lag or delay between heating of the tropical Pacific and the rise in global surface temperatures,’ says Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” according to the Bloomberg article. “In other words, the second year of an El Niño is often warmer than the first.”

Bloomberg Graphic

While it’s not known exactly how long the El Niño cycle will last, Reuters’ Juana Casas previously reported that the latest United Nations forecast expects it “will last at least through the first half of 2024,” “with abnormal rainfall due across Latin America raising fears for the agricultural sector.”

That abnormal rain could include continued dry weather in the Amazon “which is already experiencing severe drought — and could trigger more rainfall in southeastern Brazil and neighboring Uruguay,” the Bloomberg article reported.

That could be particularly problematic for agriculture, which “is particularly vulnerable given the sector can absorb 26% of economic losses during extreme weather conditions and up to 82% during drought,” Reuters’ Casas reports.

However, El Niño could be positive for winter wheat in the United States, according to Gro Intelligence, as it has been bringing “higher precipitation and more moderate temperatures to the southern Plains. Increased rainfall in the region has already delivered some much needed relief .”

While some scientists are predicting even hotter temperatures in 2024, it’s not a sure thing, as it’s difficult to predict exactly how long El Niño will last. In addition, 2024 will only be hotter if temperatures follow the normal pattern, Axios’ Andrew Freedman reported. 

“‘But ‘the normal pattern’ may not exist anymore,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University,” according to Axios’ Freedman.

No matter how long El Niño lasts, however, the year is still likely to be hot.

“Michelle L’Heureux, NOAA’s top El Niño forecaster, told Axios this one may fade next spring and give way to a La Niña event — which would feature cooler than average waters in the same regions of the Pacific,” Freedman reported. “If this happens, 2024 could be a top 5 warmest year without overtaking 2023.”

Ryan Hanrahan is the farm policy news editor and social media director for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked in local news, primarily as an agriculture journalist in the American West. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri (B.S. Science & Agricultural Journalism).

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