IN SPACE – In this handout photo provided by NASA, Hurricane Patricia is seen from the International Space Station. The hurricane made landfall on the Pacfic coast of Mexico on October 23. (Photo by Scott Kelly/NASA via Getty Images)
After bombarding the Americas with drenching rain, heavy floods, and millions of dollars in damage, Hurricane Patricia finally crashed into the Pacific Coast of Mexico on October 20th of last year.
Hurricane Patricia mirrored current records for hurricane intensity across the board, and finally weighed in as the second strongest hurricane to ever hit the Pacific Coast. But its unusual intensity isn’t due to chance. In fact, El Niño related weather conditions set just the right conditions for Patricia to build up her strength. So what exactly is an El Niño, and what does it do? More specifically, how will it affect us?
According to most weather channels, the current 2015 El Niño is like a giant squid – we know it exists, but we have no clear idea of how it behaves or affects its environment. On the contrary, science quite clearly understands El Niño patterns, and can even warn people how to prepare for its potentially devastating effects.
An El Niño is a slightly abstract thing to try and understand. It is a climate condition that takes place when Pacific Ocean currents push warm surface water on the Asian side to the American side. When the warm surface water moves away on the Asian side, colder water rises up to take its place. At the end of the day, the ocean ends up with a warm side and a cool side. Because of the ocean surface temperature changes on both coasts, this directly changes the temperature of the air above the water.
So how are we affected by El Niños? Research shows that the El Niño’s effects include the formation of drought in some areas and excessive precipitation in others. M. J. McPhaden, a marine environmental researcher, explains that the changing air temperatures are able to move around atmospheric pressure zones. Simply said, the hot air on the American side rises while the cold air on the Asian side sinks. This moves around large air pockets that are known to cause rain.
This research is critical for California’s drought forecasting. By studying the strength of El Niño’s, we can see that strong ones have a tendency to bring above average precipitation to California. Since the current El Niño is one shaping up to be one of the strongest on record, the state can begin preparations to best collect the increase in rainfall that could potentially end the five-year drought.
Conversely, Pacific Island nations are facing a serious drought that takes a toll on their agriculture-based lifestyles. In addition to the millions of people having fewer freshwater and food supplies, they also face severe social and health problems that stem from the current El Niño. Because freshwater is harder to access during droughts, people in these developing countries often drink contaminated water to survive. This leads to large outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases. Research also indicates that damaged economies and declining living conditions during El Niño years result in more violence and fewer children enrolled in schools.
According the research of a group of scientists from Hawaii, Taiwan, and Australia, El Niño can also cause intensified cyclones. These researchers tracked down the data from cyclones that occurred during past El Niño years, and showed that these they have stronger winds than cyclones that occur in non-El Niño years. They explain this relationship by showing that El Niño ocean wind currents cause more extreme air pressure shifts. This seems to explain why Hurricane Patricia was so strong.
So why is this El Niño more intense than previous ones? Researcher Michael Lipin explains that global warming could explain the conundrum. He states that, due to the rising temperatures of the atmosphere, water evaporation has increased. The movement of water rising into the air generates more energy to power severe storms.
Since humans can’t control weather patterns, all we can do is to prepare ourselves to minimize the El Niño’s destruction. In order to prepare, we must first refine our ability to understand the exact effects each specific weather system will cause.
New science and technology has allowed for researchers to better understand how exactly El Niño can impact global weather patterns in the long run. One very important development is NASA’s new focus on using its weather satellites to track ocean height and surface currents to predict the strength of El Niños. As researchers get better at using these tools and analyzing data, they can one day alert governments to prepare for the coming droughts, enhanced fire seasons, and harmful ground-level pollutant levels.
By understanding El Niños, we can spread awareness of its power so communities can organize and prepare for its effects. Perhaps, as in California’s case, they can direct the power of weather systems to benefit the people. Regardless, El Niños give rise to an interesting question for the scientific community: How can we turn research into policies and practices that benefit humanity?