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How Does the El Nio Develop?

To comprehend El Nio, you need to understand the interactions between the ocean and
the atmosphere. Warm ocean surface water heats and adds moisture to the air above it,
forming low pressure systems (Low). Cold surface water cools the air above it, forming
high pressure systems (High). In a Low, the warm, moist air produces tropical
thunderstorms. In a High, cool, dry air sinks back to the surface and there is no
precipitation. Together, the High and Low create a circulation pattern in which surface
winds blow toward the Low and upper-level winds blow toward the High.
Motion within the ocean is also important. Within the ocean, an invisible boundary called
the thermocline separates warm surface water from cold, deeper water. A shallow
thermocline indicates a small amount of warm water, and a deep thermocline means
there's a lot of warm water. Because warm water takes up more space than cold water,
average sea level is higher where the thermocline is deep and lower where the
thermocline is shallow.
Meteorologists now recognize a phenomenon related to El Nio called La Nia, in which
conditions are nearly opposite those of El Nio. The diagrams and text below compare
the features of the ocean and atmosphere that accompany normal, El Nio, and La Nia
conditions.

NOAA


Normal Conditions
Under normal conditions,
deep warm water in the
western Pacific produces
a low pressure region
with heavy storm
activity, while the
eastern Pacific is a dry,
high pressure area with
shallow warm water.
Surface winds blow from
east to west, while upper
winds blow from west to
east. The thermocline is
deeper, and sea level
higher, in the western
Pacific than in the east.

El Nio Conditions
During El Nio, warm
surface water appears
farther east and is
spread over a broader
area. Weak Highs form
east and west of the
Low, and surface and
upper level winds are
both weaker than
normal. The thermocline
is deeper and flatter
overall, making average
sea level of the eastern
Pacific higher than
normal.

La Nia Conditions
La Nia episodes are
characterized by the
westward shift of warm
water. This produces
stronger Highs and Lows,
with stronger than
normal surface and
upper level winds. Warm
water is abnormally deep
in the western Pacific
and abnormally shallow
in the eastern Pacific.
The slope of the
thermocline becomes
steeper, and sea level is
higher than normal in
the west and lower than
normal in the east.