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Warming Pacific Shows 2002 Is an El Niņo Year

SILVER SPRING, Maryland, March 11, 2002 (ENS) - Ocean surface temperatures warmed two degrees Celsius in the eastern equatorial Pacific near the South American coast in February, U.S. scientists report, a sign that the Pacific Ocean is heading toward an El Niņo condition.

Based on data from polar orbiting satellites and surface ocean buoys, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say that the world should brace itself for an El Niņo year - drier than normal in some areas, flooding rains in others.

The warming has already been accompanied by an increase in rainfall over the eastern equatorial Pacific region.

Lautenbacher

Conrad Lautenbacher is a specialist in ocean sciences. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"This warming is an additional sign the Pacific Ocean is heading toward an El Niņo condition," said NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher.

"It's still too early to determine the potential strength of this El Niņo or exactly what weather conditions it will bring to the United States," he said, "but it is likely these warming conditions in the tropical Pacific will continue until early 2003."

Other indicators support the NOAA forecast. Peruvian officials indicate the ocean warming has had impacts on the fishing industry in the region. Their cold water anchovies have been replaced by tropical species. Similar changes have been observed in early stages of previous El Niņo episodes.

El Niņo conditions occur once water temperatures have warmed sufficiently enough to alter the normal patterns of cloudiness and rainfall in the tropical Pacific basin. A typical El Niņo features persistent, increased precipitation along the equator near the International Date Line, and warmer than normal sea surface temperatures extending eastward to the South American coast.

NOAA's advanced global climate monitoring system is instrumental in forecasting El Niņo. The system includes NOAA's polar orbiting satellites and the Tropical Atmospheric-Ocean Buoy Array, consisting of about 70 moored buoys spanning the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Both provide atmospheric and oceanographic data in real time.

"These observations allow us to get real time information on sea surface temperatures as well as ocean subsurface temperatures," said NOAA's National Weather Service Director, retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jack Kelly.

"Since the subsurface temperatures usually warm prior to the development of an El Niņo, real time subsurface information is crucial for timely and accurate predictions," he said.

tornado

Damage in Florida caused by an El Nino generated tornado in 1998. (Photo courtesy UK Environmental Change Network)
Taking its name from the Spanish for the baby Jesus - El Niņo usually arrives during the Christmas holiday season - the cyclical weather phenomenon alters weather across the globe when westward blowing trade winds weaken, allowing a mass of warm water normally located off Australia to drive eastward to western South America. The unusually warm water acts on jet stream patterns.

El Niņo episodes occur roughly every four to five years and can last from 12 to 18 months. It has been nearly four years since the end of the 1997-1998 El Niņo, which was followed by three years of La Niņa, a cooling weather pattern in the eastern tropical Pacific. Typical El Niņo impacts on the United States include:

  • monsoon season conditions in the Southwest that are drier than normal
  • a drier than normal fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest
  • a wetter than normal winter in the Gulf Coast states from Louisiana to Florida
  • a warmer than normal late fall and winter in the northern Great Plains and the upper Midwest
  • a suppressed total number of tropical systems in the Atlantic hurricane season
  • an increase in the number of east coast winter storms

NOAA's National Weather Service is the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and its territories. NOAA will continue to monitor this developing El Niņo event and provide monthly updates.



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