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Layman’s Guide To El Nino

December 31, 2015

By Paul Homewood





Given that El Nino is making big news at the moment, I thought it would be useful to publish this short resume from NWS on ENSO processes:



Effects of ENSO in the Pacific

Normal Conditions

Normal tropical weather pattern across the equator


Normally, sea surface temperature is about 14°F (8°C) higher in the Western Pacific than the waters off South America.

This is due to the trade winds blowing from east to west along the equator allowing the upwelling of cold, nutrient rich water from deeper levels off the northwest coast of South America.

Also, these same trade winds push water west which piles higher in the Western Pacific. The average sea-level height is about 1½ feet (46 cm) higher at Indonesia than at Peru.

The trade winds, in piling up water in the Western Pacific, make a deep 450 feet (150 meter) warm layer in the west that pushes the thermocline down, while it rises in the east.

The shallow 90 feet (30 meter) eastern thermocline allows the winds to pull up water from below, water that is generally much richer in nutrients than the surface layer.


El Niño Conditions

Tropical weather pattern across the equator during La Niña


However, when the air pressure patterns in the South Pacific reverse direction (the air pressure at Darwin, Australia is higher than at Tahiti), the trade winds decrease in strength (and can reverse direction).

The result is the normal flow of water away from South America decreases and ocean water piles up off South America. This pushes the thermocline deeper and a decrease in the upwelling.

With a deeper thermocline and decreased westward transport of water, the sea surface temperature increases to greater than normal in the Eastern Pacific. This is the warm phase of ENSO, called El Niño.

The net result is a shift of the prevailing rain pattern from the normal Western Pacific to the Central Pacific. The effect is the rainfall is more common in the Central Pacific while the Western Pacific becomes relatively dry.


La Niña Conditions

Tropical weather pattern across the equator during El Niño

There are occasions when the trade winds that blow west across the tropical Pacific are stronger than normal leading to increased upwelling off South America and hence the lower than normal sea surface temperatures.

The prevailing rain pattern also shifts farther west than normal. These winds pile up warm surface water in the West Pacific. This is the cool phase of ENSO called La Niña.

What is surprising is these changes in sea surface temperatures are not large, plus or minus 6°F (3°C) and generally much less.



Weather Impacts of ENSO


El Niño effect during December through February

El Niño effect during June through August

La Niña effect during December through February

La Niña effect during June through August



The Jetstream

El vs. La El Niño(a)

As the position of the warm water along the equator shifts back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, the position where the greatest evaporation of water into the atmosphere also shifts with it. This has a profound effect on the average position of the jet stream which, in turn, effects the storm track.

During El Niño (warm phase of ENSO), the jet stream’s position shows a dip in the Eastern Pacific. The stronger the El Niño, the farther east in the Eastern Pacific the dip in the jet stream occurs. Conversely, during La Niña’s, this dip in the jet stream shifts west of its normal position toward the Central Pacific.

The position of this dip in the jet stream, called a trough, can have a huge effect on the type of weather experienced in North America.

During the warm episode of ENSO (El Niño) the eastern shift in the trough typically sends the storm track, with huge amounts of tropical moisture, into California, south of its normal position of the Pacific Northwest.

Very strong El Niños will cause the trough to shift further south with the average storm track position moving into Southern California.

During these times, rainfall in California can be significantly above normal, leading to numerous occurrences of flash flood and debris flows. With the storm track shifted south, the Pacific Northwest becomes drier and drier as the tropical moisture is shunted south of the region.

The maps (right) show the regions where the greatest impacts due to the shift in the jet stream as a result of ENSO. The highlighted areas indicate significant changes from normal weather occur. The the magnitude of the change from normal is dependent upon the strength of the El Niño or La Niña.



Tropical Cyclones

Tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic is more sensitive to El Niño influences than in any other ocean basin. In years with moderate to strong El Niño, the North Atlantic basin experiences:

  • A substantial reduction in cyclone numbers,
  • A 60% reduction in numbers of hurricane days, and
  • An overall reduction in system intensity.

This significant change is believed to be due to stronger than normal westerly winds that develop in the western North Atlantic and Caribbean region during El Niño years. Other regions around the world show no affect or are only slightly affected.

The table below gives the trend in number and intensity of cyclones around the world due to the effects of El Niño. (However, as with most meteorological phenomena, there are always exceptions to these trends).



  1. December 31, 2015 11:30 am

    None of this appears to explain the current position of the jetstream in the North Atlantic or the number of storms currently hitting the UK.
    On the other hand, the El Nino is currently being partially blamed for those storms, although I don’t recall any forecasts (in advance) that El Nino would have that effect.
    In fact, if I understand it correctly the above table from the ABM suggests that there should be a decrease in the number and intensity of storms in the North Atlantic.

    • December 31, 2015 12:54 pm

      Someone interviewed on BBC radio 4 Today this morning gave a simple explanation for the effect of El Nino. It raises average equatorial temperatures, and since storms are the way that heat moves from the equator to the poles, the storms get a bit stronger and/or more frequent. The non-involvement of CO2 threw the presenter, and no doubt the prof involved will not get invited back.

      • December 31, 2015 1:52 pm

        I may be wrong but I think I have detected a movement towards the “El Nino” explanation, and away from “Climate Change”, on the BBC in recent days.
        However, I still don’t see anything in this NWS article to support that explanation.
        My personal opinion is that they are just making it up as they go along.

      • December 31, 2015 2:01 pm

        Maybe that’s unfair.
        What I meant was that perhaps the world’s climate it so complicated that every El Nino has a slightly different effect on other parts of the globe.

  2. Graeme No.3 permalink
    December 31, 2015 2:05 pm

    but which planet was the BBC talking about? And from?

    • David Richardson permalink
      December 31, 2015 3:34 pm

      Its about the size of a supercomputer and has similarities to Earth but beyond that……………

  3. December 31, 2015 3:16 pm

    Thanks, Paul, for bringing ENSO to our attention.
    Ever since the ancient inhabitants of the western coast of South America noticed cyclic changes in the kinds of small fishes in their fishing waters, we have been learning about the most powerful energy mover on Earth.
    I think Klaus Wolter’s MEI is the best index for evaluating the overall status of ENSO.
    According to Bob Tisdale, “El Niño events cause massive changes in “normal” weather patterns around the globe and El Niño events can cause long-term changes in global surface temperatures.”

  4. David Richardson permalink
    December 31, 2015 3:32 pm

    With many things meteorological I find it best to stay simple otherwise you lose everybody (including yourself – well I do). El Nino adds energy and moisture to the atmosphere and this dissipates over the following year or so.

    The NWS guide to El Nino gives a good descriptive view of the phenomena and some empirical outcomes – if only it was that easy. I agree with QV that other complications make simple predictions difficult.

    Although ENSO was known earlier, it was in the 80’s when Sea Temps from satellite started to appear, that it became a more active area of research. I remember writing a handout on the subject 30 years ago and it amuses me now to think that it was written on a simple word-processor running on a (geek alert) Research Machines 380Z and a dot-matrix printer and 5 and a quarter inch drives. I then glued on diagrams and photocopied the result – happy days.

  5. December 31, 2015 5:36 pm

    QV & others. I found this to be a good summary, covering most bases.
    Cold N.Atlantic very important. Is that global cooling staring.

    • December 31, 2015 9:16 pm

      Yes, the key ingredient is that the warmth air will simply disappear into space once it hits the Arctic.

      Hence Julia Slingo’s comment:

      enabled extremely warm air to penetrate, temporarily, the deep Arctic leading to very high temperatures.

      Warm air does not stay very long in the Arctic, unless it is ocean generated

      • December 31, 2015 9:48 pm

        With the help of a low tropopause. Mother Nature is jolly clever.

  6. January 1, 2016 1:13 am

    Reblogged this on Climate Collections.

  7. January 1, 2016 2:53 am

    Thanks for this interesting post, Paul.

  8. johnmarshall permalink
    January 1, 2016 10:12 am

    Bob Tisdale has a good ebook on the subject. Worth a read, or buy for a few dollars.


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