If it's not El Niño, then it must be his brother...

Image of the Month - November 2009

Maps of sea height anomalies measured using altimetry in October 1997, 2004 and 2009, and a longitude-time diagram on the equator for each of these years. In 2004 you can clearly see that the relatively small-scale phenomenon does not reach 90°W (coasts of South America). It would appear that the situation in 2009 is also of this type.
 


It is generally said that El Niño causes the warm waters of the tropical west Pacific ("Warm Pool") to flow towards the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. This leads to a shift in the ocean's thermal content from west to east, which modifies ocean-atmosphere heat exchanges and therefore interferes with the climate of the entire planet.

Although it was believed that El Niño was essentially defined by this movement, it has recently been discovered that it can also appear as a localised warming of the eastern part of the warm pool. This form of El Niño, known as the Warm Pool El Niño or El Niño Modoki (modoki is Japanese for "similar, but different"), although on a smaller scale, distinguishes itself from its sibling through its specific impact on global atmospheric circulation. In particular it causes severe droughts in Australia and India as it disrupts the monsoon. An analysis of the eleven IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) models has shown that global warming will lead to more frequent El Niño Modoki events.

Observations over the last few decades have indicated that the relationship between the number of El Niño Modoki and classical El Niño events has intensified greatly. The phenomenon observed in 2004 was an El Niño Modoki. The year 2009 in the tropical Pacific has also seen climate anomalies corresponding to this new type of El Niño. Observing the tropical Pacific with altimetry, as well as with various types of sensors from in situ networks or satellites, and forecasting using models such as Mercator Ocean should improve our understanding of this phenomenon and help us predict its consequences, in order to be better prepared for them.

See also:

Websites on this subject:

  • Observations:

  • Forecasts :

    • ECMWF
    • CPC/NCEP Climate Prediction Center/National Center for Environmental Prediction
    • IRI International Research Institute for Climate Prediction

References:

  • Yeh S.-W., S.-J. Kug, B. Dewitte, M.-H. Kwon, B. P. Kirtman and F.-F. Jin, 2009: El Niño in a changing climate, Nature, 461, 511-514.