El Niño gets animated

by Mary Caperton Morton
Monday, March 20, 2017

Warm water pools in the eastern tropical Pacific in this screenshot from a new animation recreating the strong El Niño event of late 1997 and early 1998. Credit: ARC Center of Excellence for Climate System Science/National Computational Infrastructure.

In the winter of 1997 and 1998, a powerful El Niño pattern in the Pacific Ocean caused billions of dollars in damage from flooding and extreme weather worldwide. Now, a new animation of the event is highlighting the complex feedbacks that conspired to create such a devastating climate cycle.

El Niño is the warm phase, and La Niña is the cool phase, of a larger climate pattern known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, which involves cycles of warmer and cooler sea-surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These phases give rise to variable oceanic and atmospheric currents that impact weather patterns worldwide.

To produce the new animation, a team from the National Computational Infrastructure in Australia and the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Climate System Science logged more than 30,000 computing hours on Australia’s most powerful supercomputer, named Raijin.

Raijin incorporated huge volumes of data on ocean temperature and circulation to show how regions of warm water in the western tropical Pacific spread eastward, displacing cooler water that had pooled off the coast of South America, weakening the westward-blowing trade winds, and impacting weather patterns across the Pacific. The results may help predict which El Niño events will have a greater global impact than others in the future, the team said in a statement.

“The animation shows us that a well-developed deep-ocean observation system can give us advance warning of extreme El Niños and La Niñas,” said team member Shayne McGregor of Australia’s Monash University in a statement. “Preserving and expanding the currently sparse observation system is critical to improving our seasonal prediction capability.”

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