What Is El Niño?

What Is El Niño?

El Niño is one of the most fascinating weather phenomena to occur on the planet Earth, and it occurs every few years. While it is a source of great fascination in the scientific community, the consequences of its use can be catastrophic.

Despite the fact that people have been observing El Niño since the 1600s, very little is known about the actual causes of the phenomenon itself.

In fact, the vast majority of people who are even aware of the term are familiar with it as a result of the particularly large instances of it that occurred in 1982 and 1997. El Niño, on the other hand, occurs fairly frequently and has a wide range in size.

Although this discrepancy cannot be explained, it is critical for forecasters to be aware of the possibility of an upcoming El Niño so that the global community can prepare for its consequences.

The following sections discuss what is currently known about the climate cycle, as well as some of the issues that it can cause around the world.

Explaining El Niño

Generally speaking, El Niño can be described as a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean. It has a significant impact on weather patterns, and its influence can be seen all over the world as a result.

This climate cycle begins when warm waters from the Pacific Ocean begin to move towards the coast of South America, triggering a feedback loop. While these waters will occasionally pool and dissipate near Indonesia, an El Nio occurs when the warmest of the surface water ends up sitting offshore in north-western South America, causing the water to become warmer than normal.

Before declaring an El Nio, forecasters take into account both the temperature of the ocean and the amount of rainfall generated by storms moving eastward. The phenomenon also causes trade winds to weaken and even reverse direction as a result of the phenomenon.

This cycle will last between nine and twelve months on average, depending on the individual. However, there have been a few instances in which the phenomenon has occurred over a period of several years, causing significant disruption in many cases.

Tropical storms will typically shift eastward during El Niño cycles, and this will continue for the duration of the cycle. This is due to the fact that the warm waters that pool during the cycle cause a greater amount of evaporation, resulting in an increase in atmospheric moisture, which encourages the formation of thunder storms to occur.

El Niño, in conjunction with La Nina, which generally acts in the opposite direction, is a component of larger oscillations in the ocean’s atmospheric system that are collectively referred to as the El Nio-Southern Oscillation cycle (also known as the ENSO cycle).

What Causes The Phenomenon?

Despite the fact that we have known about El Niño since the 1600s, when the effects of the phenomenon were first observed by Peruvian fishermen, we are still not completely certain of what causes it to occur.

A large number of interactions between the ocean and the surrounding atmosphere, it is believed, are responsible for the occurrence. This means that, rather than a single cause, an El Niño is likely to be the result of a variety of small events that come together to create the phenomenon.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that not all El Niño occurrences are created equal. The El Nio that occurred between 1982 and 1983 is particularly regarded as one of the largest instances of the cycle, as is the one that occurred in 1997; however, there have been a number of El Niños that have occurred between those years and since that have been significantly smaller in scale.

The ocean and surrounding atmosphere also exhibit varying patterns in response to El Niño occurrences, which are further explained below. Thus, forecasting when they will occur and what their consequences will be becomes even more difficult to predict.

There is some predictability, however, due to the fact that scientists can monitor ocean temperatures in the upper 656 feet of water. In order to detect temperature shifts from the western to eastern Pacific, they conduct this search in the western Pacific.

It should be noted that this is not a foolproof method, and it does not provide a definitive explanation for why El Niño occurs. In some instances, these temperature shifts occur but are not accompanied by the storms and trade wind shifts that are characteristic of an El Niño event.

When Do They Happen?

However, despite the fact that El Niño cycles can last for a year or longer, the cycles are relatively infrequent in their occurrence. Although the general pattern suggests that El Niño cycles occur every three to five years, gaps between cycles have been as short as two years and as long as seven years.

The majority of the time, when they do occur, they will form at some point during the spring. It is as a result of this that they reach their maximum strength during the winter months of December and January.

The fact that the cycle tends to arrive around the time of the Christmas holiday is what led to the cycle being given the name El Niño in the 1600s. El Niño de Navidad, which literally translates to “The Christmas Child,” was the name given at the time to the event.

However, the cycle will not be completed at that point, as it typically takes four to five months for conditions to return to their pre-El Niño levels.

What is known is that El Niño has been occurring for millions of years and will continue to do so. It is possible to find evidence of the cycle in deep sea muds and ice cores from the ocean.

Most of the time, the occurrences of El Niño are more frequent than the occurrences of its sister cycle, La Nina.

The Known Effects of an El Niño

Scientists are extremely interested in keeping track of the El Niño cycle because it has the potential to have a significant impact on weather conditions. Even though the previously mentioned increase in the frequency of storms is an obvious problem, there are a number of other issues that El Niño has a hand in contributing to.

In the case of the El Niño that occurred between 1982 and 1983, it is estimated that it caused approximately $10 billion in weather-related damage throughout the world during that period.

However, while El Niño makes it more difficult for tropical storms to form over the Atlantic Ocean due to the creation of stronger wind shear and the formation of stable air, the issue is transferred elsewhere as a result of the cycle’s occurrence. Hurricanes in the eastern Pacific, in particular, have become a major problem, with the potential to batter parts of Peru, the southern United States, and the surrounding regions.

El Nio also causes increased rainfall in the southern United States as well as in Peru, as well as in the Caribbean. During a cycle, rainfall tends to be lower in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in Ohio and Tennessee, which can cause problems for farming communities.

This problem is exacerbated in other parts of the world as well, because the cycle can cause widespread droughts in other parts of the world. During an El Niño, water shortages have been reported in Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands, among other places.

The business cycle has a negative impact on the economy as well. As a result of an El Nio, many marine species migrate north and south in search of cooler waters, making it difficult for fishing communities in South America in particular.

In Closing

In spite of the fact that the El Niño phenomenon has been occurring since the beginning of time, we still know very little about it.

Scientists, in particular, are struggling to come up with a specific explanation for the occurrences in question. The only thing we can do is track various changes in weather and ocean conditions and hope that the forecasts that result from this data provide accurate predictions of what will happen if an El Niño event occurs in the near future.

The cycle is one of the most fascinating ocean-based natural phenomena on the planet, owing to its high potential for causing damage as well as its effects on weather conditions and other factors. We may be able to gain a better understanding of how it all works over time and with additional research.

We hope that this article has provided you with some useful information about El Niño. Please don’t hesitate to share this article on social media if you believe it will be of interest to others, or to continue the discussion in the comments section below this article.

Resources

Featured Image Credit: bertconcepts @ Flickr