When trade winds die out and ocean waters become unusually warm, an El Nino weather pattern occurs worldwide. El Nino is “a disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the Tropical Pacific having important consequences for weather and climate around the globe” as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It has a significant effect on both Atlantic and Pacific hurricane frequency with an average duration lasting nine to twelve months. It occurs infrequently, somewhere between every two to seven years.
El Nino can only occur in the Pacific Ocean as compared to other oceans because of the Pacific’s wide expanse where waves take a much longer period of time to cross the basin. This allows wind variations to affect its temperature, unlike the narrower Indian and Atlantic oceans where waves can adjust more readily to changes in the wind. Also, land is closer by to these oceans that are also being warmed or cooled, affecting the surrounding waters.
In turn, this slower adjustment in the Tropical Pacific allows the atmosphere-ocean cycle to shift away from its equilibrium, its temperature balance increasing historically at around 4 degrees. When this warming happens, it creates a perfect storm that strengthens the jet stream over the Pacific, bringing on more frequent and severe weather conditions around the world.
This year’s El Nino has been dubbed “Godzilla” in terms of its possible effects on climate change.
Why is this important to me?
Because regardless of where you live in the world, you may experience a more drier or wetter climate than usual. If you live near a coastal region, hurricanes or tropical storms could impact your life more during the next year. In the U.S., warmer conditions are predicted for Alaska and cooler conditions are expected for those living along the Gulf Coast. Drought-stricken California could see wetter conditions relieving its water shortage, but at a cost of potential flooding or landslides. In general, harsher winters are predicted for many regions throughout the country.
Is it all about the water then?
Yes. With 71% of the earth’s surface covered in water and 96.5% of that water held in our oceans, it would be a hard argument to dispute the effect water has on our climate. El Nino is a proven fact, not a theory, however, theories do abound with scientists on exactly how this weather phenomenon works.
A lesser known fact about El Nino is that it actually slows the rotation of the earth by affecting air currents surrounding the globe. But don’t worry! It’s only by an extremely small fraction and not enough to change your daily routine, nor can it affect things such as how an airplane flies.