New Climate Phenomenon May Decrease El Niño’s Benefits

Written by on September 24, 2009 in Physical Oceanography

El Niño, the periodic eastern Pacific phenomenon credited with shielding the United States and Caribbean from severe hurricane seasons among other benefits may be overshadowed by its brother in the central Pacific due to global warming, according to an article in the September 24 issue of the journal Nature.

Ben Kirtman, co-author of the study and professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami’s Rosentstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science explained:

“There are two El Niños, or flavors of El Niño.  In addition to the eastern Pacific El Niño which we know and love, a second El Niño in the central Pacific is on the increase.”

El Niño Central-Eastern - UM Rosenstiel School

El Niño Central-Eastern – UM Rosenstiel School

El Niño is a recurring warm water current along the equator in the Pacific Ocean that affects weather circulation patterns in the tropics.  The eastern El Niño increases wind sheer in the Atlantic that may hamper the development of major hurricanes there as well as bring beneficial winter precipitation to the arid Southwest, less wintry weather across the north and a reduced risk of Florida wildfires.  The central Pacific El Niño, near the International Dateline — which sits on the 180º line of longitude in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and is the imaginary line that separates two consecutive calendar days — has been blamed for worsening drought conditions in Australia and India as well as minimizing the effects of its beneficial brother to the east.

A team of scientists, led by Sang-Wook Yeh of the Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute, applied Pacific Ocean sea surface temperature data from the past 150 years to 11 global warming models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Eight of the models showed that global warming conditions will increase the incidence of the central Pacific El Niño.  Over the past 20 years, according to the data, the frequency of an El Niño event in the central Pacific has increased from one out of every five to half of all El Niño occurrences.

El Niño, sea surface temperatures along the equatorial Eastern Pacific, as of July 1, are at least one degree above average - Credit: NOAA

El Niño, sea surface temperatures along the equatorial Eastern Pacific, as of July 1, are at least one degree above average – Credit: NOAA

“The results described in this paper indicate that the global impacts of El Niño may significantly change as the climate warms,” said Yeh.

Though the centers of the central and eastern areas are roughly 4,100 miles apart, El Niños historically have not simultaneously occurred in both places.  An increase in central Pacific El Niño events may reduce the hurricane-shielding and beneficial effects of the eastern Pacific event.

Kirtman as well as other scientists expects the current El Niño event to end next spring, perhaps followed by a La Niña, which he expects may bode for a more intense Atlantic hurricane season in 2010.  He said:

“Currently, we are in the middle of a developing eastern Pacific El Niño event, which is part of why we’re experiencing such a mild hurricane season in the Atlantic.  We also anticipate the southern United States to have a fairly wet winter, and the northeast may be dry and warm.

We’re finally learning about how ocean current flows and increases in sea surface temperature influence weather patterns, which affect every one of us.  I have devoted much of my career to studying El Niño because of how it affects people and their lives.”

Kirtman works with various meteorological organizations around the world to help developing countries respond to climate extremes.  His team provides them with the forecasts and the countries use the results to develop their response.

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .


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