Campus climate group first to predict El Niño

UBC's Climate Prediction Group were among the first in the world to predict this year's El Niño event -- the first time an El Niño has been correctly forecast in Canada.

Made up of Earth and Ocean Sciences Prof. William Hsieh, research associate Benyang Tang and several graduate students, the group issued its alert in May on the department's Web site.

The group used a unique detection method called a neural network model, in which computers are trained to recognize patterns, to make its prediction.

"Our neural network model learned which wind patterns would precede a warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature -- an El Niño," says Hsieh.

"When we presented new wind data to the model, it issued the forecast that an El Niño event could be expected."

Hsieh says this year's El Niño is likely to surpass the 1982/83 event, which was considered the biggest of the century and caused more than $8 billion US of damage globally.

Tropical areas can expect heavy rains or drought, Hsieh says.

El Nino's most noticeable effects on weather patterns in Western Canada at least will be more positive and will be felt in late fall and winter.

We can expect lower heating bills, Hsieh predicts, due to a warmer and somewhat drier winter, while prairie farmers may have a bumper crop of grain next summer.

The project was funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.