It's official--El Niño is back in the tropical Pacific, and it's big. It's so big so early in the year that "we think this is shaping up into an extraordinary one with large effects around the globe," says Ants Leetmaa, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) in Camp Springs, Maryland. He and his forecasters, who announced the prodigal child's return at a press conference yesterday, believe the warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that has been building during the past several months will trigger jarring shifts in weather patterns from India to California.
The latest meteorological mayhem comes after more than 5 years of hard times for El Niño forecasters. An oddly persistent warmth pervaded the tropical Pacific during the first half of the 1990s, out of which short bursts of El Niño-like warmth would leap without warning. Much to the relief of researchers, the current warming seems better behaved; both of the CPC's forecast techniques--a sophisticated computer simulation of Pacific ocean-atmosphere interactions and a statistical analysis of Pacific climate trends--began predicting the warming as early as last fall.
The forecasters' next chore is to predict what effects this El Niño will have on weather around the world. If it's anything like the El Niño of 1972 that Leetmaa compares it to, this summer in the Northern Hemisphere the Indian monsoon should weaken and the Caribbean region dry out. Next winter, drought should strike Australia, South Africa, and northeast Brazil, while storms bring extra water to California and the Southeast if not much of the southern half of the United States. By then, of course, forecasters will know just how well behaved this El Niño really is.
Updates are available on the Web .