What is the El Niño phenomenon?

Image of the Pacific Ocean

Pacific Ocean

On a planet where 75% of its surface is covered by water, the oceans play a very important role in regulating the climate of the entire world, from the poles to the tropics. And it is there, in the tropical waters of the eastern Pacific, where a climatic phenomenon occurs that begins by being localized, but ends up having consequences throughout the Earth: El Niño.

In this article we will explain what it is and how it affects the global climate so you can learn more about the oceans and the influence they have on all parts of our planet.

What is the El Niño phenomenon?

Pacific ocean temperatures

El Niño It is a phenomenon related to the warming of the waters of the eastern equatorial Pacific, cyclical, which occurs every three or eight years and lasts for 8-10 months. It is the warm phase of the equatorial Pacific climate pattern called El Niño-Southern Oscillation, ENSO for its acronym in English. It is a phenomenon that causes innumerable and serious damages in the intertropical and equatorial zone, mainly due to the intense rains.

The Peruvian fishermen gave it that name referring to the baby Jesus, and every year a warm current appears for Christmas. It was not until 1960 that it was noticed that it was not a local Peruvian phenomenon, but that it really has consequences throughout the tropical Pacific and even further afield.

It is not yet clear how the phenomenon develops, but meteorologist Jacob Bjerknes (1897-1975) linked the high temperatures of the oceanic surface with weak winds from the east and the intense rains that accompanied them.

Later, another meteorologist named Abraham Levy noted that sea ​​water, which is cold during autumn and winter, heats up and as a result, the air temperature increases. Warm water currents travel under the sea, from Australia to Peru.

How is the phenomenon detected?

As it has consequences that can be devastating, it is very important to have systems with which to detect it in time. Thus, appropriate measures can be taken to avoid the greatest possible number of deaths. For it, satellites, floating buoys are used and the sea is analyzed to know what conditions the surface of the seas in the equatorial zone presents. In addition, the wind is investigated because, as we have mentioned before, a change in the wind can be an indicator that the El Niño phenomenon is about to occur.

What influence does it have on the climate?

Flood, one of the consequences of El Niño

El Niño, a phenomenon that has been going on for millennia, has a great influence on the world's climate. In fact, today it could change the climatic conditions of an area so much that, due to the growth of the human population, it is becoming urgent that the affected countries can take really effective measures to cope with its effects. And it is that, after its development, changes occur in temperatures and patterns of rain and winds in the planet.

Let's know what its effects are:

  • Globally: temperature records, changes in atmospheric circulation, the appearance of diseases difficult to eradicate (such as cholera), loss of plants and animals.
  • In South America: decrease in atmospheric pressure, heating of the Humboldt Current and very humid periods during which rainfall is very intense.
  • Southeast Asia: low cloud formation, significant droughts and decrease in ocean temperature.

Still, it is important to note that no two El Niño are alike. This means that the areas that were affected last time may not be affected again. They will have a greater probability, yes, but you cannot know for sure.

Relationship between El Niño and climate change

Terrestrial climate change

While it is not yet known exactly what effect climate change has on the El Niño phenomenon, several scientists point out in a study published in the journal Nature in 2014 that the frequency of the phenomenon, as well as its intensity, is likely to increase as the planet's global average temperature rises. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not consider this link as proven, why?

Well the answer is that when we talk about climate change we talk about climate trends, while the El Niño phenomenon is a natural variability. However, there are other meteorologists, such as Jorge Carrasco, who do agree with the study that in a warmer world, the intensity and frequency of El Niño will increase.

As we have seen, El Niño is a phenomenon that can have many and important consequences in various parts of the world. For our own safety, it is important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the temperature from continuing to rise, because if we do not, in addition to the effects of climate change, we will have to protect ourselves from a more intense El Niño phenomenon.

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