Scientists using a satellite to peer down on remote expanses of the Pacific Ocean said Tuesday the disruptive ocean current known as El Nino is increasing in strength, promising more downpours on the West Coast, extended drought in the Caribbean and winter daffodils on New England ski slopes.
Government climate experts predict that the unusual current in the Pacific will shape weather on the West Coast and throughout the United States for the rest of the year.
Among climatologists, the vast periodic upwelling of tropically warm water - named for the Christ child because it usually appears around Christmastime - is a favorite whipping boy for the world’s weather woes.
Climate experts believe that when El Nino appears every three to seven years, it rearranges the atmosphere’s normal currents to redirect storms and upset more predictable seasonal weather patterns. The result ranges from disastrous rains in Los Angeles to balmy, springlike winter days in New York City.
Images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, which uses a radar altimeter to measure the height of the sea surface, reveal a protruding tongue of tropically warm water thousands of miles long pointing at the coast of South America.
The satellite images offer new insights into the evolution of an El Nino current and provide a kind of topographic map of the world’s oceans. The highest areas of sea level are caused by El Nino’s warmer water and the troughs are caused by relatively cooler currents, experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.
JPL scientists used the satellite to monitor the upwelling El Nino current over the last six months of 1994 and determined that the tropical Pacific is about 4 to 8 inches higher than normal as a result of the additional warm water - more than twice as high as during the 1992-93 El Nino.
“The satellite has observed high sea-surface elevation which reflects an excessive amount of unusually warm water in the upper ocean,” said satellite project scientist Lee-Lueng Fu at JPL. The excess heat warms the water, which in turn heats the atmosphere and alters the atmospheric jet stream in unpredictable ways.
“This wave is currently occupying most of the tropical Pacific Ocean,” Fu said. “It looks like it will last another month or two.”
Experts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., suggest that the world is in the midst of a rare extended El Nino effect.
The Northern Hemisphere, for example, is experiencing the third winter season in four years to be influenced by El Nino’s abnormally warm waters, unprecedented during the past 50 years, Weather Service experts said.”We have never quite seen something like this,” said James W. Hurrell, an NCAR climate researcher.
There is evidence that nine El Ninos of varying strength have affected the climate in the past 40 years. The strongest El Nino on record, recorded in 1982-83, was blamed for hurricanes in Tahiti, floods in the Middle West, droughts in South Africa, failed harvests in India and devastating fires in Australia.