Climate – what is El Nino?

El Niño is a phenomenon in ocean-atmospheric systems in the tropical Pacific, the effects of which have major consequences for weather around the world. Climatic disturbances from an El Niño event include increased rainfall across the southern USA and in South America to the point of major flooding, and drought in the West Pacific affecting countries such as Australia.

An El Niño pattern can be predicted by observations of changes in weather tropical Pacific. This data is collected by network of buoys that measure temperature, currents and winds on the equator, which then transmit back to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in real time.

While all our high tech gizmos have been able to predict El Nino patterns in recent years with some degree of accuracy, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. South American fishermen originally recognized it when unusually warm water in the Pacific ocean appeared towards the end of a year, or very early in the year.

The term El Niño is Spanish for The Little Boy or Christ child in Spanish, relating back to the time of the appearance of these unusually warm waters.

The opposite of an El Niño is a La Niña  (The Little Girl); also known as El Viejo or anti-El Niño. It’s where unusually cold water appears in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. This usually brings dryer weather to the south-western United States, Florida and western Latin America and above-average rainfall to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

El Niño and La Niña events can last anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years.

The debate regarding the impact of global warming on El Niño and La Niña events is still raging, with many scientists believing that increased global temperatures will created a more persistent El Niño state. Warmer global temperature trends are the result of an increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, due to human activities related to the burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests.

Learn more about El Niño and La Niña