This year has been an incredibly strange one for weather.
Throughout what has been the warmest year in recorded history, the world witnessed apocalyptic-like conditions, from snowstorms that buried major cities in record levels of snow to thunderstorms that led to massive flooding and hurricanes that hit unexpected places in unforeseen numbers.
But we can’t pin it all on El Niño.
Yes, a lot of it can be chalked up to this year’s El Niño, which has been one of the strongest on record. (El Niño is a regularly occurring event characterised by warmer-than-normal temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that make it easy for water to gather in the air into powerful storm systems). Still, many of this year’s events have likely been made worse by human-made climate change. As decades of research suggest, a gradually warming climate is also amping up the likelihood and frequency of extreme events, from flooding to heat waves.
Here’s a rundown of the year’s most freakish weather events, and why they aren’t set to improve anytime soon:
Winter, early 2015: Snow, snow, and more snow
New England got buried when snowstorm after snowstorm pummelled the area. Within a single month, Boston got covered with more than 60 inches of snow, making it a record-breaking event.
Although the record-breaking snowfall could be considered normal, climate researchers suggested that warming sea temperatures off the coast of New England could be a big factor in the amount of precipitation hitting the area. Plus, warmer temperatures just under freezing usually produces more snow than colder temperatures.
Spring 2015: Flooding, tornadoes, and drought
Spring wasn’t much better. A chilly April led to a month of extreme weather in May. Texas had massive flooding, heatwaves hit India, destructive tornadoes struck the Great Plains, and the East Coast flirted with drought-like levels of rain (something California is all too familiar with).
Summer and Fall 2015: More hurricanes than usual
Weird weather led to the spectacular picture below, taken in August of three Category 4 storms in the Pacific Ocean. On a scale of 1-5, category 4 storms are one of the most severe types, with raging winds that reach speeds between 130 and 156 mph.
This historic activity can be attributed to the El Niño weather pattern, according to predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The weather pattern, which is associated with warming temperatures in the Pacific that mess with global weather systems, is tied to more frequent and stronger hurricanes, particularly in the Pacific.
Fortunately, while severe, these hurricanes didn’t see too much destructive landfall, with the exception of Hurricane Joaquin, which slammed the Bahamas with winds approaching around 130 mph. Joaquin never made landfall in the US, but it nevertheless caused flooding in South Carolina, with some areas getting almost two feet of rain.
Elsewhere, in the Arabian Sea, higher sea surface temperatures may have led to the two cyclones that hit the area for the first time ever. Scientists speculate that the cyclones were caused by a combination of these rising temperatures and El Niño.
End of 2015 and beyond: Hard to predict
On the heels of hurricane season, the world started amping up for what is likely to be the worst El Niño ever.
December has seen more than its fair share of extreme weather, with flooding caused by storms and tornadoes in the south, blizzards in the southwest, and spring-like warm temperatures on the East Coast.
Why? Warm, moist, El Niño-driven air.
But it’s not just El Niño. Climate change is likely adding fuel to the storms as well.
As Justin Gillis reported in The New York Times, “This El Niño, one of the strongest on record, comes atop a long-term heating of the planet caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. A large body of scientific evidence says those emissions are making certain kinds of extremes, such as heavy rainstorms and intense heat waves, more frequent.”
If the past few months are any indication, 2016 is going to have its share of unusual weather. The NOAA’s winter El Niño forecast runs through February, and the agency says we can expect more rain, similar warmer temperatures and, in some areas, drought.
Not the most optimistic of outlooks for 2016.