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How Scientists Unraveled the El Nino Mystery

Last modified January 19, 2015 09:58

By Daniel A. Gross

How Scientists Unraveled the El Nino Mystery

The TAO buoys collect real-time data for improving the detection, understanding and prediction of El Nino. Credit: NOAA

It was January 1997, and the Pacific was turning pink. The color was spreading from deep beneath the surface, starting near New Guinea and creeping east toward the coast of Peru — a distance of nearly 11,000 kilometers. On the map, it seemed as though the patch might come to encompass the entire ocean, growing and rising, expanding at the surface almost like the film of an oil spill.

In the actual ocean, there wasn't much to see. David Pierce was looking at a map superimposed with projected ocean temperatures, and pink was a representation of anomalous warmth in the Pacific. The map told Pierce that according to the climate model developed by him and his colleagues at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, huge swaths of the southern Pacific were about to heat up.

A warmer ocean would mean a lot more than better surfing in Baja California. In fact, it would mean torrential rainfall across South America, record winter warmth and wetness in the United States, and $4 billion of damage in the country of Ecuador alone. Climate scientists had even found that through long chains of cause and effect, warm Pacific temperatures were linked to warm air over the Arctic and cold air over Russia — regions that were literally half a world away.

It felt a bit unreal to Pierce that nearly a year in advance, a computer could identify such a drastic development in the climate. The forecast was far from certain knowledge, but if it proved correct, a big El Nino was brewing. Temperature anomalies started in the Pacific, but they could have repercussions across the planet.

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