El Nino

The first mention of the term "El Nino" to refer to climate occurs in 1892, when Captain Camilo Carrilo told the Geographical society congress in Lima that Peruvian sailors named the warm northerly current "El Nino" because it was most noticeable around Christmas. However even before then the phenomenon was of interest because of its effects on biological productivity, with its effects on the guano industry. Normal conditions along the west Peruvian coast are a cold southerly current (the Peru current) with upwelling water; the upwelling nutrients lead to great oceanic productivity; the cold currents leads to very dry conditions on land. Similar conditions exist elsewhere (California current; Benguela current off south Africa). Thus the replacement of this with warmer northerly water leads to lower biological productivity in the ocean, and more rainfall - often flooding - on land; the connection with flooding was reported in 1895 by Pezet and Eguiguren.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was much interest in forecasting climate anomalies (for food production) in India and Australia. Charles Todd, in 1893, suggested that droughts in India and Australia tended to occur at the same time; Norman Lockyer noted the same in 1904. In 1924 Gilbert Walker (after who the Walker circulation is named) first coined the term "Southern Oscillation".

El Nino is a quasiperiodic climate pattern that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean with on average five year intervals. It is characterized by variations in the temperature of the surface of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean - warming or cooling known as El Nino and La Nina respectively - and air surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific - the Southern Oscillation. The two variations are coupled: the warm oceanic phase, El Nino, accompanies high air surface pressure in the western Pacific, while the cold phase, La Nina, accompanies low air surface pressure in the western Pacific. Mechanisms that cause the oscillation remain under study.

ENSO causes extreme weather (such as floods and droughts) in many regions of the world. Developing countries dependent upon agriculture and fishing, particularly those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are the most affected. In popular usage, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation is often called just "El Nino".

El Nino is Spanish for "the boy" and refers to the Christ child, because periodic warming in the Pacific near South America is usually noticed around Christmas. The expression of ENSO is potentially subject to dramatic changes as a result of global warming, and is a target for research in this regard El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a global coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon. The Pacific ocean signatures, El Nino and La Nina (also written in English as El Nino and La Nina) are major temperature fluctuations in surface waters of the tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Their effect on climate in the southern hemisphere is profound. These effects were first described in 1923 by Sir Gilbert Thomas Walker from whom the Walker circulation, an important aspect of the Pacific ENSO phenomenon, takes its name. The atmospheric signature, the Southern Oscillation (SO) reflects the monthly or seasonal fluctuations in the air pressure difference between Tahiti and Darwin. El Nino affects Australia by drought.

ENSO is a set of interacting parts of a single global system of coupled ocean-atmosphere climate fluctuations that come about as a consequence of oceanic and atmospheric circulation. ENSO is the most prominent known source of inter-annual variability in weather and climate around the world (~3 to 8 years), though not all areas are affected. ENSO has signatures in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

In the Pacific, during major warm events El Nino warming extends over much of the tropical Pacific and becomes clearly linked to the SO intensity. While ENSO events are basically in phase between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, ENSO events in the Atlantic Ocean lag behind those in the Pacific by 12 to 18 months.

Many of the countries most affected by ENSO events are developing countries within main continents (South America, Africa...), with economies that are largely dependent upon their agricultural and fishery sectors as a major source of food supply, employment, and foreign exchange. New capabilities to predict the onset of ENSO events in the three oceans can have global socio-economical impacts. While ENSO is a global and natural part of the Earth's climate, whether its intensity or frequency may change as a result of global warming is an important concern. Low-frequency variability has been evidenced. Inter-decadal modulation of ENSO might exist.

El Nino and La Nina are officially defined as sustained sea surface temperature anomalies of magnitude greater than 0.5°C across the central tropical Pacific Ocean. El Nino is associated with a positive anomaly, and La Nina with a negative anomaly. When the condition is met for a period of less than five months, it is classified as El Nino or La Nina conditions; if the anomaly persists for five months or longer, it is classified as an El Nino or La Nina episode. Historically, it has occurred at irregular intervals of 2-7 years and has usually lasted one or two years.

La Nina is a coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that is the counterpart of El Nino as part of the broader El NinoŠSouthern Oscillation climate pattern. During a period of La Nina, the sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3Š5 °C. In the United States, an episode of La Nina is defined as a period of at least 5 months of La Nina conditions. The name La Nina originates from Spanish, meaning "the little girl," analogous to El Nino meaning "the little boy."

La Nina, sometimes informally called "anti-El Nino", is the opposite of El Nino, where the latter corresponds instead to a higher sea surface temperature by a deviation of at least 0.5 °C, and its effects are often the reverse of those of El Nino. El Nino is known for its potentially catastrophic impact on the weather along the Chilean, Peruvian, New Zealand, and Australian coasts, among others. It has extensive effects on the weather in North America, even affecting the Atlantic Hurricane Season. La Nina often, though not always, follows an El Nino.

Early Signs of El Nino

Rise in air pressure over the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, and Australia

Fall in air pressure over Tahiti and the rest of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean

Trade winds in the south Pacific weaken or head east

Warm air rises near Peru, causing rain in the deserts there

Warm water spreads from the west Pacific and the Indian Ocean to the east Pacific. It takes the rain with it, causing rainfall in normally dry areas and extensive drought in eastern areas.

El Nino's warm current of nutrient-poor tropical water, heated by its eastward passage in the Equatorial Current, replaces the cold, nutrient-rich surface water of the Humboldt Current, also known as the Peru Current, which support great populations of food fish. In most years the warming lasts only a few weeks or a month, after which the weather patterns return to normal and fishing improves. However, when El Nino conditions last for many months, more extensive ocean warming occurs and its economic impact to local fishing for an international market can be serious.

The Walker circulation is seen at the surface as easterly trade winds which move water and air warmed by the sun towards the west. This also creates ocean upwelling off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador and brings nutrient-rich cold water to the surface, increasing fishing stocks. The western side of the equatorial Pacific is characterized by warm, wet low pressure weather as the collected moisture is dumped in the form of typhoons and thunderstorms. The ocean is some 60 cm higher in the eastern Pacific as the result of this motion.

In the Pacific, La Nina is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific, compared to El Nino, which is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the same area. Atlantic tropical cyclone activity is generally enhanced during La Nina. The La Nina condition often follows the El Nino, especially when the latter is strong.

El Nino/Southern Oscillation- A shift in the normal relationship between the atmosphere and ocean in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Normally, strong winds (called trade winds because they aided sailing ships transporting goods) blow to the west in the Pacific, moving warmer surface water away from North and South America. Simultaneously, cold water from the ocean depths rises to the surface off the west coast of South America. This upwelling brings nutrients to the surface, supporting fisheries and ecosystems in the area. In an El Nino event, these trade winds die down, causing warmer surface water to accumulate off western North and South America. This leads to increased rainfall, storm activity, and flooding in the Americas (especially the southwestern United States and Peru) and drought conditions in Australia and other areas in the western Pacific. Fisheries on the west coasts of North and South America are also seriously affected.

Because El Nino's warm pool feeds thunderstorms above, it creates increased rainfall across the east-central and eastern Pacific Ocean.In South America, the effects of El Nino are direct and stronger than in North America.

An El Nino is associated with warm and very wet summers (December-February) along the coasts of northern Peru and Ecuador, causing major flooding whenever the event is strong or extreme. The effects during the months of February, March and April may become critical. Southern Brazil and northern Argentina also experience wetter than normal conditions but mainly during the spring and early summer.

Central Chile receives a mild winter with large rainfall, and the Peruvian-Bolivian Altiplano is sometimes exposed to unusual winter snowfall events. Drier and hotter weather occurs in parts of the Amazon River Basin, Colombia and Central America.

Direct effects of El Nino resulting in drier conditions occur in parts of southeast asia, increasing forest fires, and northern Australia. Drier than normal conditions are also generally observed in Queensland, inland Victoria, inland New South Wales and eastern Tasmania during June-August.West of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Ross, Bellingshausen, and Amundsen Sea sectors have more sea ice during El Nino.

The latter two and the Weddell Sea also become warmer and have higher atmospheric pressure.In North America, typically, winters are warmer than normal in the upper Midwest states and Canada, while central and southern California, northwest Mexico and the southeastern U.S., are wetter than normal. Summer is wetter in the intermountain regions of the U.S.

The Pacific Northwest states, on the other hand, tend to be drier during an El Nino. During a La Nina, by contrast, the Midwestern U.S. tends to be drier than normal. El Nino is also associated with decreased hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

Finally, East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania and the White Nile basin, experiences in the long rains from March to May wetter than normal conditions. There also are drier than normal conditions from December to February in south-central Africa, mainly in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana.

Study of climate records has found that about half of the summers after an El Nino have unusual warming in the Western Hemisphere Warm Pool (WHWP). This affects weather in the area and seems to be related to the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Atlantic Effect

An effect similar to El Nino sometimes takes place in the Atlantic Ocean, where water along equatorial Africa's Gulf of Guinea becomes warmer and eastern Brazil becomes cooler and drier. This may be related to El Nino Walker circulation changes over South America.

Cases of double El Nino events have been linked to severe famines related to the extended failure of monsoon rains, as in the book Late Victorian Holocausts.

Non-climate Effects

Along the west coast of South America, El Nino reduces the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that sustains large fish populations, which in turn sustain abundant sea birds, whose droppings support the fertilizer industry.

The local fishing industry along the affected coastline can suffer during long-lasting El Nino events. The world's largest fishery collapsed due to overfishing during the 1972 El Nino Peruvian anchoveta reduction.

During the 1982-83 event, jack mackerel and anchoveta populations were reduced, scallops increased in warmer water, but hake followed cooler water down the continental slope, while shrimp and sardines moved southward so some catches decreased while others increased. Horse mackerel have increased in the region during warm events.

Shifting locations and types of fish due to changing conditions provide challenges for fishing industries. Peruvian sardines have moved during El Nino events to Chilean areas. Other conditions provide further complications, such as the government of Chile in 1991 creating restrictions on the fishing areas for artisanal fishermen and industrial fleets.

The ENSO variability may contribute to the great success of small fast-growing species along the Peruvian coast, as periods of low population removes predators in the area. Similar effects benefit migratory birds which travel each spring from predator-rich tropical areas to distant winter-stressed nesting areas.

There is some evidence that El Nino activity is correlated with incidence of red tides off of the Pacific coast of California.It has been postulated that a strong El Nino led to the demise of the Moche and other pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures.

A few years ago, attribution of recent changes (if any) in ENSO or predictions of future changes were very weak. More recent results (e.g. Collins et al.) tend to suggest that the projected tropical warming may follow a somewhat El-Nino like spatial pattern, without necessarily altering the variability about this pattern.

Causes of El Nino

The mechanisms which might cause an El Nino event are still being investigated. Major theories include:

Bjerknes in 1969 suggested that an anomalously warm spot in the eastern Pacific can weaken the east-west temperature difference, causing weakening in the Walker circulation and trade wind flows, which push warm water to the west. The result is increasingly warm water toward the east.

Wyrtki in 1975 proposed that increased trade winds could build up the western bulge of warm water, and any sudden weakening in the winds would allow that warm water to surge eastward. However, there was no such buildup preceding the 1982-83 event.

Recharge oscillator: Several mechanisms have been proposed where warmth builds up in the equatorial area, then is dispersed to higher latitudes by an El Nino event. The cooler area then has to "recharge" warmth for several years before another event can take place.

Western Pacific oscillator: In the western Pacific, several weather conditions can cause easterly wind anomalies. For example, a cyclone to the north and anticyclone to the south force easterly winds between. Such patterns may counteract the westward flows across the Pacific and create a tendency toward continuing the eastward motion. A weakening in the westward currents at such a time may be the final trigger.

Equatorial Pacific Ocean may tend to be near El Nino conditions, with several random variations affecting behavior. Weather patterns from outside the area or volcanic events may be some such factors.

The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) is an important source of variability that can contribute to a more rapid evolution toward El Nino conditions through related fluctuations in low-level winds and precipitation over the western and central equatorial Pacific. Eastward-propagating oceanic Kelvin waves can be produced by MJO activity.

Adams, Mann and Ammann showed in 2003, using statistical analysis of paleoclimatic records, that a volcanic event in the tropics tends to trigger a 3 year El Nino followed by 3 years of La Nina.

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