El Niño Is Roaring Back

Science  27 Jun 1997:
Vol. 276, Issue 5321, pp. 1977
DOI: 10.1126/science.276.5321.1977a

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It's official: El Niño, a recurrent warming in the tropical Pacific Ocean that has far-flung weather effects, is back--big time. "We think this is shaping up into an extraordinary [El Niño] with large effects around the globe," says Ants Leetmaa, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) in Camp Springs, Maryland.El Niño forecasters have had a hard time reading its signals against a background of unusual warmth that persisted for most of the '90s; sudden temperature jumps have intensified that warmth without warning. The current warming, which started early this year, is behaving more predictably, though: Both of the CPC's forecast techniques--a computer simulation of Pacific ocean-atmosphere interactions and a statistical analysis of Pacific climate trends--foresaw the trend as early as last fall.

Ironically, the computer model that in 1986 made the first successful El Niño prediction, the model at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, didn't see this El Niño coming. Depending solely on shifting equatorial winds, it presumably had too narrow a perspective.

The forecasters' next task is predicting how this El Niño will play out around the world. Leetmaa is assuming it will be comparable to the one in 1972, which would mean feeble monsoon rains for India this summer and water shortages in the Caribbean region. By early next year, there should be drought in Australia, South Africa, and northeast Brazil, while storms would bring extra water to California and much of the southern United States.