Ocean Sciences Research Spotlight

El Niño Fades Without Westerly Wind Bursts

Pacific Ocean conditions brought El Niño winter forecasts in early 2014, but the chances faded by late summer. New research places blame on shifting winds.

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The warm and wet winter of 1997 brought California floods, Florida tornadoes, and an ice storm in the American northeast, prompting climatologists to dub it the El Niño of the century. Earlier this year, climate scientists thought the coming winter might bring similar extremes, as equatorial Pacific Ocean conditions resembled those seen in early 1997. However, the signals weakened by summer, and the El Niño predictions were downgraded. Menkes et al. used simulations to examine the differences between the two years.

The El Niño–Southern Oscillation is defined by abnormally warm sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean and weaker than usual trade winds. In a typical year, southeast trade winds push surface water toward the Western Pacific “Warm Pool”—a region essential to Earth’s climate. The trade winds dramatically weaken or even reverse in El Niño years, and the warm pool extends its reach eastward.

Scientists have struggled to predict El Niño because of irregularities in the shape, amplitude, and timing of the surges of warm water. Previous studies suggested that short-­lived westerly wind pulses (i.e., 1–2 weeks long) could contribute to this irregularity by triggering and sustaining El Niño events.

To understand the vanishing 2014 El Niño, the authors used computer simulations and examined the wind’s role. The researchers found pronounced differences between 1997 and 2014. Both years saw strong westerly wind events between January and March, but those disappeared this year as spring approached. In contrast, the westerly winds persisted through summer in 1997.

In the past, it was thought that westerly wind pulses were 3 times as likely to form if the warm pool extended east of the date line. That did not occur this year. The team says their analysis shows that El Niño’s strength might depend on these short-­lived and possibly unpredictable pulses. (Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2014GL061186, 2014)

—Eric O. Betz, Writer

Citation: Betz, E. (2014), El Niño fades without westerly wind bursts, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(50), 484, doi:10.1002/2014EO500011.

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