El Niño is a natural phenomenon that happens when tepid waters form in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The pool of abnormally warm water is approximately two to three degrees Celsius warmer than average. It happens every two to seven years and leads to a temporary climate change episode.
Apart from affecting the water settings in the eastern Pacific Ocean, El Niño also creates dangerous weather changes across the globe. For instance, it can cause droughts or long periods of unusually low rainfall in Australia and flooding in the sunshine state of California. Past El Niño events have always been monitored but this winter, the scientists will look at the bigger picture and observe the El Niño 2015-16 phase from space.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) stated that the El Niño 1997-98 event is, by far, the worst ever recorded. According to the WMO, the El Niño 2015-16 is already underway and appears to be at par with the El Niño 1997-98 statistics.
In the past 20 years, NASA's 19 Earth-observing satellites, which were launched after 1997, have been feeding scientists with a tremendous amount of data to understand the mechanisms of the El Niño phenomenon and its impact across the globe.
"El Niño is a fascinating phenomenon because it has such far-reaching and diverse impacts. The fact that fires in Indonesia are linked with circulation patterns that influence rainfall over the United States shows how complex and interconnected the Earth system is," said research meteorologist Lesley Ott at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
With today's space technology, scientists are better equipped in analyzing El Niño than in all previous years combined. NASA Earth-observing satellites will be used along with modeling system supercomputers. The American space agency will release scientific updates and images of El Niño movements throughout this winter.
The NASA satellites will look into sea surface height and temperature, surface currents, atmospheric winds and ocean hue. The Jason-2 satellite focuses on the measurement of sea surface height. This data is beneficial in measuring the heat that is stored and released during the El Niño years. The Jason-2 satellite is a joint venture of NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), French government space agency Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSTAT).
El Niño's widespread effects around the world will be better analyzed using the comprehensive tool kit. Researchers can better understand El Niño's link to the annual fire seasons in Indonesia, the U.S. and the Amazon. El Niño is also believed to affect the ground-level ozone and how it affects human health. One occurrence in high priority is understanding how El Niño affects the worsening drought in California.
Analyzing the El Niño movements using NASA satellites enables researchers to see how widespread the effect could be. For instance, the warmer the waters in the eastern tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean, the wider the El Niño effects will be. El Niño has the power to change weather pattern, storm tracks and cloud cover. Changes in weather patterns have severe effects to local industries such as fisheries.
NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement Mission will provide regular precipitation data worldwide every three hours. NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive mission will look into soil moisture in the land's top layer. These two satellites will be crucial not just in tracking drought levels, but also in providing more accurate flood warnings to help crop and fishing industries.
Earth Science and Technology Directorate Chief Scientist Duane Waliser expressed that NASA is leading the observation on El Niño to advance our knowledge of its role in influencing the planet's climate patterns and weathers. Waliser works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.