El Nino Is Back!!!
11 July 2009 12:27 pm ET
We told you last month that El Nino was poised to return. Now NOAA scientists this week announced its formal arrival.
The good news: possibly reduced hurricane activity. The bad news: possibly heavier rain in the Southern United States (which is actually good news for drought-stricken areas).
El Nino is the periodic warming of central and eastern tropical Pacific waters. It occurs on average every two to five years and typically lasts about 12 months. Weekly eastern equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures were at least 1.0 degree C above average at the end of June, scientists said. The most recent El Nino occurred in 2006.
What Is El Nino?
El Nino is marked by warmer water in the Pacific off the coast of South America. It alters weather patterns in the United States and around the world.
El Nino was originally recognized by fisherman off the coast of South America. Today, climate experts track it with ocean buoys and satellite data. El Nino means The Little Boy or Christ child in Spanish. This name was used for the tendency of the phenomenon to arrive around Christmas. The cool sister to El Nino is La Nina, which means the Little Girl.
Here's how it works (click on the image to see this visualized):
What happens when El Nino is not present:
In normal, non-El Nino conditions (top panel of schematic diagram), the trade winds blow towards the west across the tropical Pacific, away from South America.
These winds pile up warm surface water in the west Pacific, so that the sea surface is about 1-2 feet (1/2 meter) higher at Indonesia than at Ecuador (in South America).
The sea surface temperature is about 8 degrees Celsius higher in the west, with cool temperatures off South America, due to an upwelling of cold water from deeper levels. This cold water is nutrient-rich, supporting high levels of primary productivity, diverse marine ecosystems, and major fisheries.
When El Nino kicks in:
During El Nino, the trade winds relax in the central and western Pacific. Surface water temperatures off South American warm up, because there is less upwelling of the cold water below to cool the surface. This cuts off the supply of nutrients, resulting in a drastic decline in the food chain, including commercial fisheries in this region.
Among the known effects of El Nino:
Increased rainfall across the southern tier of the United States and in Peru, which has caused destructive flooding.
Throttles hurricane formation in the Atlantic by pumping energy high into the atmosphere and fueling wind currents that cross the Americas and shear the tops off some Atlantic storms before they can fully develop.
In recent years, El Nino has been blamed for just about everything. Mapping yearly changes in rainfall around the globe, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite showed in 2004 that El Nino is the main driving force for rainfall amounts in different locations.
During El Nino, the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South American (brown region at right) is warmer (red) as cool water below (blue) does not upwell effectively. Click to see how it's different during non-El Nino times. Credit:
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