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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The 1997 El Niño observed by TOPEX/Poseidon. The white areas off the tropical coasts of South and North America indicate the pool of warm water.[1]

El Niño-Southern Oscillation, often called simply ENSO, is a climate pattern that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean on average every five years, but over a period which varies from three to seven years, and is therefore, widely and significantly, known as "quasi-periodic." ENSO is best-known for its association with floods, droughts and other weather disturbances in many regions of the world, which vary with each event. Developing countries dependent upon agriculture and fishing, particularly those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are the most affected.

ENSO is composed of an oceanic component, called El Niño (or La Niña, depending on its phase), which is characterized by warming or cooling of surface waters in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, and an atmospheric component, the Southern Oscillation, which is characterized by changes in surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific. The two components are coupled: when the warm oceanic phase (known as El Niño) is in effect, surface pressures in the western Pacific are high, and when the cold phase is in effect (La Niña), surface pressures in the western Pacific are low.[2][3] Mechanisms that cause the oscillation remain under study.

In popular usage, El Niño-Southern Oscillation is often called just "El Niño". El Niño is Spanish for "the boy" and refers to the Christ child, because periodic warming in the Pacific near South America is usually noticed around Christmas.[4] "La Niña" is Spanish for "the girl."



El Niño is defined by sustained differences in Pacific-Ocean surface temperatures when compared with the average value. The accepted definition is a warming or cooling of at least 0.5°C (0.9°F) averaged over the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean. When this happens for less than five months, it is classified as El Niño or La Niña conditions; if the anomaly persists for five months or longer, it is called an El Niño or La Niña "episode."[5] Typically, this happens at irregular intervals of 2–7 years and lasts nine months to two years.[6]

The first signs of an El Niño are:

  1. Rise in surface pressure over the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, and Australia
  2. Fall in air pressure over Tahiti and the rest of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean
  3. Trade winds in the south Pacific weaken or head east
  4. Warm air rises near Peru, causing rain in the northern Peruvian deserts
  5. Warm water spreads from the west Pacific and the Indian Ocean to the east Pacific. It takes the rain with it, causing extensive drought in the western Pacific and rainfall in the normally dry eastern Pacific.

El Niño's warm current of nutrient-poor tropical water, heated by its eastward passage in the Equatorial Current, replaces the cold, nutrient-rich surface water of the Humboldt Current. When El Niño conditions last for many months, extensive ocean warming occurs and its economic impact to local fishing for an international market can be serious.[7]

Early stages and characteristics of El Niño

5-day running mean of MJO. Note how it moves eastward with time.

Although its causes are still being investigated, El Niño events begin when trade winds, part of the Walker circulation, falter for many months. A series of Kelvin waves—relatively warm subsurface waves of water a few centimetres high and hundreds of kilometres wide—cross the Pacific along the equator and create a pool of warm water near South America, where ocean temperatures are normally cold due to upwelling. The Pacific Ocean is a heat reservoir that drives global wind patterns, and the resulting change in its temperature alters weather on a global scale.[8] Rainfall shifts from the western Pacific toward the Americas, while Indonesia and India become drier.[9]

Jacob Bjerknes in 1969 helped toward an understanding of ENSO, by suggesting that an anomalously warm spot in the eastern Pacific can weaken the east-west temperature difference, disrupting trade winds that push warm water to the west. The result is increasingly warm water toward the east.[10] Several mechanisms have been proposed through which warmth builds up in equatorial Pacific surface waters, and is then dispersed to lower depths by an El Niño event.[11] The resulting cooler area then has to "recharge" warmth for several years before another event can take place.[12]

While not a direct cause of El Niño, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, or MJO, propagates rainfall anomalies eastward around the global tropics in a cycle of 30–60 days, and may influence the speed of development and intensity of El Niño and La Niña in several ways.[13] For example, westerly flows between MJO-induced areas of low pressure may cause cyclonic circulations north and south of the equator. When the circulations intensify, the westerly winds within the equatorial Pacific can further increase and shift eastward, playing a role in El Niño development.[14] Madden-Julian activity can also produce eastward-propagating oceanic Kelvin waves, which may in turn be influenced by a developing El Niño, leading to a positive feedback loop.[15]

Southern Oscillation

Normal Pacific pattern. Equatorial winds gather warm water pool toward west. Cold water upwells along South American coast. (NOAA / PMEL / TAO)

The Southern Oscillation is the atmospheric component of El Niño. It is an oscillation in air pressure between the tropical eastern and the western Pacific Ocean waters. The strength of the Southern Oscillation is measured by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). The SOI is computed from fluctuations in the surface air pressure difference between Tahiti and Darwin, Australia.[16] El Niño episodes are associated with negative values of the SOI, meaning that the pressure at Tahiti is relatively low compared to Darwin.

Low atmospheric pressure tends to occur over warm water and high pressure occurs over cold water, in part because deep convection over the warm water acts to transport air. El Niño episodes are defined as sustained warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. This results in a decrease in the strength of the Pacific trade winds, and a reduction in rainfall over eastern and northern Australia.


Walker circulation

El Niño Conditions. Warm water pool approaches South American coast. Absence of cold upwelling increases warming.
La Niña Conditions. Warm water is further west than usual.

During non-El Niño conditions, the Walker circulation is seen at the surface as easterly trade winds which move water and air warmed by the sun towards the west. This also creates ocean upwelling off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador and brings nutrient-rich cold water to the surface, increasing fishing stocks. The western side of the equatorial Pacific is characterized by warm, wet low pressure weather as the collected moisture is dumped in the form of typhoons and thunderstorms. The ocean is some 60 centimetres (24 in) higher in the western Pacific as the result of this motion.[17][18][19][20]

Effects of ENSO's warm phase (El Niño)

South America

Because El Niño's warm pool feeds thunderstorms above, it creates increased rainfall across the east-central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The effects of El Niño in South America are direct and stronger than in North America. An El Niño is associated with warm and very wet summers (December-February) along the coasts of northern Peru and Ecuador, causing major flooding whenever the event is strong or extreme. The effects during the months of February, March and April may become critical. Along the west coast of South America, El Niño reduces the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that sustains large fish populations, which in turn sustain abundant sea birds, whose droppings support the fertilizer industry. This leads to fish kills offshore Peru.[7]

The local fishing industry along the affected coastline can suffer during long-lasting El Niño events. The world's largest fishery collapsed due to overfishing during the 1972 El Niño Peruvian anchoveta reduction. During the 1982-83 event, jack mackerel and anchoveta populations were reduced, scallops increased in warmer water, but hake followed cooler water down the continental slope, while shrimp and sardines moved southward so some catches decreased while others increased.[21] Horse mackerel have increased in the region during warm events. Shifting locations and types of fish due to changing conditions provide challenges for fishing industries. Peruvian sardines have moved during El Niño events to Chilean areas. Other conditions provide further complications, such as the government of Chile in 1991 creating restrictions on the fishing areas for self-employed fishermen and industrial fleets.

The ENSO variability may contribute to the great success of small fast-growing species along the Peruvian coast, as periods of low population removes predators in the area. Similar effects benefit migratory birds which travel each spring from predator-rich tropical areas to distant winter-stressed nesting areas. There is some evidence that El Niño activity is correlated with incidence of red tides off the Pacific coast of California[citation needed].

Southern Brazil and northern Argentina also experience wetter than normal conditions but mainly during the spring and early summer. Central Chile receives a mild winter with large rainfall, and the Peruvian-Bolivian Altiplano is sometimes exposed to unusual winter snowfall events. Drier and hotter weather occurs in parts of the Amazon River Basin, Colombia and Central America.

North America

Regional impacts of warm ENSO episodes (El Niño).

In North America, El Niño creates warmer-than-average winters in the upper Midwest states and the Northwest, thus reduced snowfall than average during winter. Meanwhile, central and southern California, northwest Mexico and the southwestern U.S. become significantly wetter while the northern Gulf of Mexico states and Southeast states (including Tidewater and northeast Mexico) are wetter and cooler than average during the El Niño phase of the oscillation.[22][23] Summer is wetter in the intermountain regions of the U.S. The Pacific Northwest states, on the other hand, tend to experience dry, mild but foggy winters and warm, sunny and early springs.

In Canada, both warmer and drier winters (due to forcing of the Polar Jet further north) occur, although relatively little variation is seen in the Maritime Provinces. The following summer is less stormy and warmer over the middle of the country. It is believed that the ice-storm in January 1998, which devastated parts of Southern Ontario and Southern Quebec, may have been caused or at least accentuated by El Nino's warming effects.[24] El Nino also warmed up weather in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, such that the area experienced subtropical-like weather during the games.[25]

El Niño is also associated with increased wave-caused coastal erosion along the United States Pacific Coast.

Tropical cyclones

Most tropical cyclones form on the side of the subtropical ridge closer to the equator, then move poleward past the ridge axis before recurving into the main belt of the Westerlies.[26] When the subtropical ridge position shifts due to El Nino, so will the preferred tropical cyclone tracks. Areas west of Japan and Korea tend to experience much fewer September-November tropical cyclone impacts during El Niño and neutral years. During El Niño years, the break in the subtropical ridge tends to lie near 130°E which would favor the Japanese archipelago.[27] During El Niño years, Guam's chance of a tropical cyclone impact is one-third of the long term average.[28] The tropical Atlantic ocean experiences depressed activity due to increased vertical wind shear across the region during El Niño years.[29]


In Africa, East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania and the White Nile basin experiences, in the long rains from March to May, wetter than normal conditions. There also are drier than normal conditions from December to February in south-central Africa, mainly in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana. Direct effects of El Niño resulting in drier conditions occur in parts of Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, increasing bush fires and worsening haze and decreasing air quality dramatically. Drier than normal conditions are also generally observed in Queensland, inland Victoria, inland New South Wales and eastern Tasmania from June to August. West of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Ross, Bellingshausen, and Amundsen Sea sectors have more sea ice during El Niño. The latter two and the Weddell Sea also become warmer and have higher atmospheric pressure.

El Niño's effects on Europe are not entirely clear, but certainly it is not nearly as affected as at least large parts of other continents. There is some evidence that an El Niño may cause a wetter, cloudier winter in Northern Europe and a milder, drier winter in the Mediterranean Sea region. The El Niño winter of 2006/2007 was unusually mild in the UK and Western Europe, and the Alps recorded very little snow coverage that season.[30]

Most recently, Singapore experienced the driest Feburary in 2010 since records begins in 1869. With only 6.3 millimetres of rain fell in the month and temperatures hitting as high as 35 degrees Celsius on the 26th Feburary. 1968 and 2005 had the next driest Februaries when 8.4 mm of rain fell.[31]

Effects of ENSO's cool phase (La Niña)

Sea surface skin temperature anomalies in November 2007 showing La Niña conditions

La Niña is the name for the cold phase of ENSO, during which the cold pool in the eastern Pacific intensifies and the trade winds strengthen. The name La Niña originates from Spanish, meaning "the girl", analogous to El Niño meaning "the boy". It has also in the past been called anti-El Niño, and El Viejo (meaning "the old man").[32]

North America

Regional impacts of La Niña.

La Niña causes mostly the opposite effects of El Niño. Atlantic tropical cyclone activity is generally enhanced during La Niña. La Niña causes increased rainfall across the United States' Midwest. Other potential impacts include above average precipitation in the Northern Rockies, Northern California, and in southern and eastern regions of the Pacific Northwest. Below-average precipitation is expected across the southern tier, particularly in the southwestern and southeastern states.[33]

In Canada, La Nina will generally cause a cooler, snowier winter, such as the near record-breaking amounts of snow recorded in the La Nina winter of 2007/2008 in Eastern Canada.[34]


During La Niña years, the formation of tropical cyclones, along with the subtropical ridge position, shifts westward across the western Pacific ocean, which increases the landfall threat to China.[27] In March 2008, La Niña caused a drop in sea surface temperatures over Southeast Asia by an amount of 2°C. It also caused heavy rains over Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.[35]

Recent occurrences

There was a strong La Niña episode during 1988-1989. La Niña also formed in 1995, from 1998–2000, and a minor one from 2000-2001. Recently, an occurrence of El Niño started in September 2006[36] and lasted until early 2007.[37] From June 2007 on, data indicated a moderate La Niña event, which strengthened in early 2008 and weakened by early 2009; the 2007-2008 La Niña event was the strongest since the 1988-1989 event. According to NOAA, El Niño conditions have been in place in the equatorial Pacific Ocean since June 2009, peaking in January-February. Positive SST anomalies are expected to last at least through the North American Spring as this El Niño slowly weakens.[38]

Remote influence on tropical Atlantic Ocean

A study of climate records has shown that El Niño events in the equatorial Pacific are generally associated with a warm tropical North Atlantic in the following spring and summer.[39] About half of El Niño events persist sufficiently into the spring months for the Western Hemisphere Warm Pool (WHWP) to become unusually large in summer.[40] Occasionally, El Niño's effect on the Atlantic Walker circulation over South America strengthens the easterly trade winds in the western equatorial Atlantic region. As a result, an unusual cooling may occur in the eastern equatorial Atlantic in spring and summer following El Niño peaks in winter.[41] Cases of El Niño-type events in both oceans simultaneously have been linked to severe famines related to the extended failure of monsoon rains.[42]

ENSO and global warming

It is well-known by now that during the last several decades the number of El Niño events increased, and the number of La Niña events decreased[43]. The question is whether this is a random fluctuation or a normal instance of variation for that phenomenon, or the result of global climate changes towards global warming.

The studies of historical data show that the recent El Niño variation is most likely linked to global warming. For example, one of the most recent results is that even after subtracting the positive influence of decadal variation, shown to be possibly present in the ENSO trend[44], the amplitude of the ENSO variability in the observed data still increases, by as much as 60% in the last 50 years[45].

It is not certain what exact changes will happen to ENSO in the future: different models make different predictions (cf.[46]) It may be that the observed phenomenon of more frequent and stronger El Niño events occurs only in the initial phase of the global warming, and then (e.g., after the lower layers of the ocean get warmer as well), El Niño will become weaker than it was[47]. It may also be that the stabilizing and destabilizing forces influencing the phenomenon will eventually compensate for each other[48]. More research is needed to provide a better answer to that question, but the current results do not completely exclude the possibility of dramatic changes.

El Niño "Modoki" and Central-Pacific El Niño

Map showing Nino3.4 and other index regions

The traditional Niño, also called Eastern Pacific (EP) El Niño,[49] involves temperature anomalies in the Eastern Pacific. However, in the last two decades non-traditional El Niños were observed, in which the usual place of the temperature anomaly is not affected, but an anomaly arises in the central Pacific.[50] The phenomenon is called Central Pacific (CP) El Niño,[49] "dateline" El Niño (because the anomaly arises near the dateline), or El Niño "Modoki" (Modoki is Japanese for "similar, but different").[51]

The effects of the CP El Niño are different from those of the traditional EP El Niño - e.g., the new El Niño leads to more hurricanes more frequently making landfall in the Atlantic.[52]

The recent emergence of the new El Niño is linked with human influence on the climate, leading to the global warming: models including the anthropogenic factor have great success for predicting the new kind of El Niño.[53]

The first recorded El Niño that started in the central Pacific and moved towards the east was in 1982.[54]

Cultural history and pre-historic information

Average equatorial Pacific temperatures

ENSO conditions have occurred at two- to seven year intervals for at least the past 300 years, but most of them have been weak. There is also evidence for strong El Niño events during the early Holocene epoch 10,000 years ago.[55]

El Niño affected pre-Columbian Incas [56] and may have led to the demise of the Moche and other pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures.[57] A recent study suggests that a strong El-Niño effect between 1789-93 caused poor crop yields in Europe, which in turn helped touch off the French Revolution.[58] The extreme weather produced by El Niño in 1876–77 gave rise to the most deadly famines of the 19th century.[59]

An early recorded mention of the term "El Niño" to refer to climate occurs in 1892, when Captain Camilo Carrillo told the Geographical society congress in Lima that Peruvian sailors named the warm northerly current "El Niño" because it was most noticeable around Christmas. The phenomenon had long been of interest because of its effects on the guano industry and other enterprises that depend on biological productivity of the sea.

Charles Todd, in 1893, suggested that droughts in India and Australia tended to occur at the same time; Norman Lockyer noted the same in 1904.An El Niño connection with flooding was reported in 1895 by Pezet and Eguiguren. In 1924 Gilbert Walker (for whom the Walker circulation is named) coined the term "Southern Oscillation".

The major 1982-83 El Niño lead to an upsurge of interest from the scientific community. The period from 1990-1994 was unusual in that El Niños have rarely occurred in such rapid succession.[60] An especially intense El Niño event in 1998 caused an estimated 16% of the world’s reef systems to die. The event temporarily warmed air temperature by 1.5°C, compared to the usual increase of 0.25°C associated with El Niño events.[61] Since then, mass coral bleaching has become common worldwide, with all regions having suffered ‘severe bleaching’.[62]

Major ENSO events were recorded in the years 1790-93, 1828, 1876–78, 1891, 1925–26, 1972–73, 1982–83, and 1997–98.[42] Recent El Niños have occurred in 1986-1987, 1991–1992, 1993, 1994, 1997–1998, 2002–2003, 2004–2005, 2006–2007 and 2009-2010.

See also


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Further reading

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also El Nino



Alternative spellings


Spanish, meaning “The Little Boy,” referring to the Christ child, as the phenomenon is observed around Christmas time


Wikipedia has an article on:


El Niño

  1. An invasion of warm water into the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru and Ecuador every four to seven years that causes changes in local and regional climate, associated with a positive anomaly.
    Additionally, scientists aren’t expecting to be surprised again by El Niño, a warming of the Pacific Ocean that tends to dampen Atlantic hurricane activity. (Houston Chronicle, 5/23/2007)

Usage notes

  • As el means “the” in Spanish, “El Niño” is correctly used without an article in English (El Niño was seen this year rather than The El Niño was seen this year).

Related terms




Proper noun

El Niño m.

  1. The Christ child
  2. El Niño (ocean current)


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