Climate Variability: What You Need To Know

Climate change is a fairly constant source of news, but this year’s El Niño is bringing more attention than usual to climate variability–changes in climate that unfold on shorter timescales. These are typically natural swings in our climate, be them year-to-year or decade-to-decade. They tend to be more dramatic than the projected average changes anticipated from climate change. Despite the fact that most areas of the world aren’t well-adapted to present-day climate fluctuations (e.g. the current California drought and Indonesian fires), the world puts many resources into understanding the changes expected in 50-100+ years.

This isn’t to say that climate change research is not important, of course, or that climate change and climate variability aren’t related. Madeleine Thomson, a scientist at IRI, has characterized the upcoming El Niño as an opportunity to test our public health systems on their ability to handle extreme climate events, which are expected to occur more frequently in the future. Moreover, studying climate variability now and understanding better how our climate system works on shorter-term scales will inform the study of how our climate might change on longer-term scales.

While El Niño is one of the most well-understood sources of climate variability, your weather at any given time is influenced by a multitude of naturally-occuring patterns of climate variability. As scientists study these patterns, the ability for new kinds of forecasts, and more accurate forecasts, is increasingly possible. Recent strides in the Madden-Julian Oscillation, for example, have opened up new possibilities of predicting climate events at the two-week to two-month timescale.

For more information, check out our new resource page that further explains climate variability and a handful of the many variability patterns scientists are currently exploring.