The intense meteorological events typically occur every 20 years, but an international team of researchers has published a report in the journal Nature Climate Change that suggests extreme El Niños are now on track to happen once a decade.
If these most powerful El Niños do materialize that frequently, they will likely spawn more natural disasters.
The last extreme El Niño in 1997-1998 killed about 23,000 people and caused an estimated $35 billion in damage.
Unlike conventional El Niño events, which first develop in the western Pacific, the more unusual extreme El Niños build as the water warms up over the cold and dry eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. This temperature change throws off worldwide rainfall patterns.
20 climate models
The rainfall shift is known as "reorganization," and is to blame for causing global weather catastrophes such as droughts, floods and bush fires.
"During an extreme El Niño event, countries in the western Pacific such as Australia and Indonesia experienced devastating droughts and wild fire," said lead author Wenju Cai with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia's national science agency.
Meanwhile, devastating floods occurred in the eastern equatorial region of Ecuador and northern Peru, he said.
The new paper involved an analysis of 20 climate models that simulated extreme rainfall.
The scientists found that the warming over the next century of waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean due to climate change would cause a spike in the number of extreme El Niño events.
Between 1890 and 1990, according to the models, extreme El Niños occurred about every 20 years; from 1990 to 2090, this ramps up to every 10 years.
"This latest research based on rainfall patterns suggests that extreme El Niño events are likely to double in frequency as the world warms, leading to direct impacts on extreme weather events worldwide," Cai concluded.
Climate models show this trend should continue as long as greenhouse gas emissions remain unchecked and the planet continues to warm up.
Scientists have been trying to establish a connection between climate change and El Niño events for more than 20 years, the study's authors said.
"This research is the first comprehensive examination of the issue to produce robust and convincing results," said Mike McPhaden, one of the paper's authors and a researcher with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.Suggest a correction