El Niño Continues To Look Strong

El Niño Continues To Look Strong

GP El Nino combo-fullThe current strong El Niño brewing in the Pacific Ocean shows no signs of waning, as seen in the latest satellite image from the U.S./European Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason-2 mission.

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El Niño 2015 has already created weather chaos around the world. Over the next few months, forecasters expect the U.S. to feel its impacts as well, according to a news release issued this week by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology.

The latest Jason-2 image bears a striking resemblance to one from December 1997, by Jason-2’s predecessor, the NASA/Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) Topex/Poseidon mission, during the last large El Niño event. Both reflect the classic pattern of a fully developed El Niño.

The images show nearly identical, unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the Central and Eastern Pacific: the signature of a big and powerful El Niño. Higher-than-normal sea surface heights are an indication that a thick layer of warm water is present.

El Niños are triggered when the steady, westward-blowing trade winds in the Pacific weaken or even reverse direction, triggering a dramatic warming of the upper ocean in the Central and Eastern tropical Pacific. Clouds and storms follow the warm water, pumping heat and moisture high into the overlying atmosphere. These changes alter jet stream paths and affect storm tracks all over the world.

This year’s El Niño has caused the warm water layer that is normally piled up around Australia and Indonesia to thin dramatically, while in the Eastern tropical Pacific, the normally cool surface waters are blanketed with a thick layer of warm water. This massive redistribution of heat causes ocean temperatures to rise from the Central Pacific to the Americas. It has sapped Southeast Asia’s rain in the process, reducing rainfall over Indonesia and contributing to the growth of massive wildfires that have blanketed the region in choking smoke.

El Niño is also implicated in Indian heat waves caused by delayed monsoon rains, as well as Pacific island sea level drops, widespread coral bleaching that is damaging coral reefs, droughts in South Africa, flooding in South America, and a record-breaking hurricane season in the Eastern tropical Pacific. Around the world, production of rice, wheat, coffee, and other crops has been hit hard by droughts and floods, leading to higher prices.

In the U.S., many of El Niño’s biggest impacts are expected in early 2016. Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration favor an El Niño-induced shift in weather patterns to begin in the near future, ushering in several months of relatively cool and wet conditions across the southern U.S., and relatively warm and dry conditions over the northern U.S. Here’s the latest El Niño forecast from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

While scientists still do not know precisely how the current El Niño will affect the U.S., the last large El Niño in 1997-1998 was a wild ride for most of the nation. The “Great Ice Storm” of January 1998 crippled northern New England and southeastern Canada, but overall, the northern tier of the U.S. experienced long periods of mild weather and meager snowfall.