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Southern Oscillation Defined

It is an oscillation in air pressure between the tropical western and eastern Pacific

Ocean waters. Is strength is measured by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) which records

the monthly or cyclic variations in the normalized surface air pressure difference between

Tahiti and Darwin, Australia. For El Niño episodes values of the SOI are negative and for La

Niña episodes they are positive

El Nino Defined

El Niño is a type of oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific.

It is supposed to have important consequences for weather around the globe like increased

rainfall across the southern rim of the US and in Peru, which has caused catastrophic

flooding, and drought in the West Pacific, sometimes the phenomenon is also associated with

destructive brush fires in Australia. The word has Spanish roots meaning "the little boy".

La Niña Defined

It is the cold phase of ENSO. During La Niña the cold pool in the eastern Pacific intensifies

and the trade winds strengthen. The word has Spanish roots, meaning "the little girl".

Normal Conditions versus El Niño.

In normal conditions, the trade winds blow towards the west across the tropical Pacific.

These winds amass warm surface water in the west Pacific as a result of which the sea

surface is nearly 1/2 meter higher near Indonesia than at Ecuador. The sea surface

temperature is approximately 8° C higher in the west, with cooler temperatures off South

America, due to an upwelling of cold water from deeper levels. This cold water is nutrient-
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rich, supports high levels of primary productivity, varied marine ecosystems, and major

fisheries. Rainfall is found in rising air over the warmest water, and the east Pacific is

relatively dry.

During El Niño, the trade winds relax in the central and western Pacific resulting in a

depression in the thermocline in the eastern Pacific, and an elevation of the thermocline in the

west. It reduces the efficiency of upwelling to cool the surface and cuts off the supply of

nutrient rich thermocline water to the euphotic zone. The result is an increase in sea surface

temperature and a severe decline in primary productivity, which ultimately affects adversely

higher trophic levels of the food chain, including commercial fisheries in this region. Rainfall

follows the warm water eastward, with associated flooding in Peru and drought in Indonesia

and Australia. The eastward displacement of the atmospheric heat source overlaying the

warmest water results in large changes in the global atmospheric circulation, which in turn

force changes in weather in regions far removed from the tropical Pacific.

Origin of the Trade Winds

The surface air flows toward the equator and the flow aloft is poleward. A low-pressure area

of calm, light variable winds near the equator is known to mariners as the doldrums or more

appropriately Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Around 30° N. and S., the air flowing

in the direction of pole starts to descend toward the surface in subtropical high-pressure belts.

The dipping air is comparatively drier because its moisture has already been released in the

vicinity of the Equator on top of the tropical rain forests. Near the center of this high-pressure

zone of sliding air, known as the "Horse Latitudes," the surface winds are weak and variable.

The surface winds running from these subtropical high-pressure belts toward the Equator are

redirected westward in both hemispheres by the Coriolis effect. Because winds are named for

the direction from which the wind is blowing, these winds are called the northeast trade

winds in the Northern Hemisphere and the southeast trade winds in the Southern Hemisphere.
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The trade winds tend to meet at the ITCZ s. Surface winds known as "westerlies" flow from

the Horse Latitudes in the general direction of poles. These "westerlies" meet "easterlies"

from the polar highs at about 50-60° N. and S.

Causes of El Niño and La Niña

El Niño appears as a result of contact between the superficial layers of the ocean and the

overlying air in tropical Pacific. The internal dynamics of the coupled ocean-atmosphere

system determine the beginning and end of El Niño events. The physical processes are

complicated, but they entail uneven air-sea contact and planetary degree oceanic waves. The

system oscillates between El Niño (warm) to neutral (cold) conditions with a natural

periodicity of roughly 3-4 years. Outside forcing, like from volcanic eruptions (submarine or

terrestrial), has no identified connection with El Niño. No proofs of sunspots are discovered

yet. The Walker circulation is another hypothetical reason for these phenomena. It is an

idealized air flow which forms, on average, air circulation at the equator and around it. It is

caused by the pressure difference force that springs from a higher pressure system over the

eastern Pacific ocean, and a lower pressure system over Indonesia. When the Walker

circulation weakens or reverses itself, an El Niño comes forth, causing the ocean surface to

be warmer than average, as upwelling of cold water happens less or not at all. An

exceptionally strong Walker circulation may cause a La Niña, thus resulting in cooler ocean

temperatures due to increased upwelling.
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Impacts of the El Niño and La Niña in the United States

Impacts on Weather

The ENSO affects the location of the jet stream, which changes rainfall schemes across the

West, Midwest, the Southeast, and throughout the tropics. The shift in the jet stream also

causes shifts in the incidence of severe weather, and the frequency of tropical cyclones

anticipated within the tropics in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans affected by alterations in the

ocean temperature and the subtropical jet stream. During El Niño, the northern layer of the

lower 48, as well as southern Alaska, exhibits above normal temperatures during both the fall

and winter, whereas the Gulf coast experiences below normal temperatures during the winter

season. From one corner to other corner in Alaska, La Niña events lead to drier than normal
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conditions, while El Niño events do not exhibit an association between dry or wet conditions.

During El Niño events, high level of precipitation is anticipated in California due to a more

southerly, zonal, storm track. During La Niña, this increased precipitation is diverted into the

Pacific Northwest due to a northerly storm track. During La Niña events, the storm track

shifts far enough northward to bring dampening conditions (in the form of increased

snowfall) to the Midwestern states, along with hot and dry summers. During the El Niño

portion of ENSO, higher levels of precipitation fall along the Gulf coast and Southeast due to

a stronger than normal, and southerly, polar jet stream. In late winter and spring, during El

Niño events, drier than average conditions can be expected in Hawaii. On Guam during El

Niño years, dry season precipitation averages less than normal. However, the threat of a

tropical cyclone is three times what is normal during El Niño years, so extreme shorter

duration rainfall events are possible. In American Samoa during El Niño events, precipitation

averages about 10 percent above normal, while La Niña events causes precipitation amounts

close to 10 percent below normal. Despite identified alterations in tropical cyclone activity

due to changes in the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the Atlantic basin, there is no

apparent relationship between rainfall in Puerto Rico and the ENSO cycle. During El Niño

years, snowfall is greater than average across the southern Rockies and Sierra Nevada

mountains, and is well-below normal across the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes states.

During a La Niña, snowfall is above normal across the Pacific Northwest and western Great

Lakes. During El Niño, the jet stream is slanting from west to east across the south of the US,

making the region more prone to stern climatic changes. During La Niña, the jet stream and

harsh weather is expected to be more northerly than normal. Due to changes in upper level

winds caused by variations in the ENSO cycle, the probability of an Atlantic hurricane

striking the Continental United States is enlarged during La Niña conditions, and truncated

during El Niño conditions. La Niña causes usually the opposite effects of El Niño, like, El
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Niño would cause a wet period in the Midwestern U.S., whereas La Niña would typically

cause a dry period in this area. Especially at high latitudes, El Niño and La Niña are among a

number of factors that manipulate weather. However, the impacts of El Niño and La Niña at

these latitudes are most noticeably seen in wintertime. In the continental US, during El Niño

years, temperatures in the winter tend to be warmer than normal in the North Central States,

and cooler than normal in the Southeast and the Southwest. During a La Niña year, winter

temperatures are warmer than normal in the Southeast and tend to be cooler than normal in

the Northwest.

Non-climatic Impacts

These natural phenomena have an indirect effect on the fertilizer industry as El Niño reduces

the upwelling of cold nutrient-rich water that maintains large fish populations along the west

coast of South America, , which helps in supporting abundant sea birds, whose droppings

support the fertilizer industry.

The home fishing industry beside the coastline can also suffer during long-lasting El Niño

events. It has occurred in 1972 El Niño Peruvian anchoveta reduction when the whole fishery

collapsed. Again in 1982-83 event, some of the catches decreased in number while others

increased like jack mackerel and anchoveta populations were diminished, scallops improved

in warmer water, but hake followed cooler water down the continental slope, whereas

sardines and shrimp moved southward. Horse mackerel have increased in the region during

warm events.