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Douglas Isbell

NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC September 15, 1997


(Phone: 202/358-1753)

Mary Hardin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA
(Phone: 818/354-5011)

RELEASE: 97-200

INDEPENDENT NASA SATELLITE MEASUREMENTS CONFIRM


EL NINO IS BACK AND STRONG

Pacific Ocean sea-surface height measurements and


atmospheric water vapor information taken from two independent
Earth-orbiting satellites are providing more convincing evidence
that the weather-disrupting phenomenon known as El Ni–o is back
and strong.

"The new data collected since April 1997 confirm what we


had earlier speculated upon and what the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted -- a full-blown El
Ni–o condition is established in the Pacific," said
Dr. Lee-Lueng Fu, project scientist for the U.S./French satellite
TOPEX/POSEIDON satellite at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
(JPL), Pasadena, CA.

The five years of global ocean topography observations made


by TOPEX/POSEIDON have been a boon for El Ni–o researchers, who
have been able to track three El Ni–o events since the satellite's
launch in August 1992.

"The recent data are showing us that a large warm water


mass with high sea-surface elevations, about six inches (15
centimeters) above normal, is occupying the entire tropical
Pacific Ocean east of the international date line. In fact, the
surface area covered by the warm water mass is about one-and-a-
half times the size of the continental United States," Fu said.
"We watched this warm water mass travel eastward from the western
Pacific along the equator earlier this spring. Right now, sea-
surface height off the South American coast is 10 inches (25
centimeters) higher than normal, which is comparable with the
conditions during the so-called 'El Ni–o of the century' in 1982-
83."

In addition, recent atmospheric water vapor data collected


from NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) show tell-
tale signs of an El Ni–o condition in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
"The Microwave Limb Sounder experiment on UARS is
detecting an unusually large build-up of water vapor in the
atmosphere at heights of approximately eight miles (12 kilometers)
over the central-eastern tropical Pacific. Not since the last
strong El Ni–o winter of 1991-92 have we seen such a large build-
up of water vapor in this part of the atmosphere," said JPL's Dr.
William Read. "Increased water vapor at these heights can be
associated with more intense wintertime storm activity from the
'pineapple express,' a pattern of atmospheric motions that brings
tropical moisture from Hawaii to the southwestern United States.
This phenomenon is an example of how the ocean and atmosphere work
together to dictate the severity of El Ni–o events."

An El Ni–o is thought to be triggered when steady westward


blowing trade winds weaken and even reverse direction. This
change in the winds allows the large mass of warm water that is
normally located near Australia to move eastward along the equator
until it reaches the coast of South America. This displaced pool
of unusually warm water affects evaporation, where rain clouds
form and, consequently, alters the typical atmospheric jet stream
patterns around the world. The change in the wind strength and
direction also impacts global weather patterns.

In May, NOAA issued an advisory regarding the presence of


the early indications of El Ni–o conditions. Subsequent El Ni–o
forecast activities supported by NOAA indicate the likelihood of a
moderate or strong El Ni–o in late 1997. The forecast model
operated at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction
used data collected by the TOPEX/POSEIDON satellite.

"The added amount of oceanic warm water near the Americas,


with a temperature between 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit, is about 30
times the volume of water in all the U.S. Great Lakes combined,"
said Dr. Victor Zlotnicki, a TOPEX/POSEIDON investigator at JPL.
"The difference between the current, abnormally high amount of
heat in the near-surface waters and the usual amount of heat in
the same area is about 93 times the total energy from fossil fuels
consumed by the United States in 1995."

On-going NOAA advisories on El Ni–o conditions are available


on the Internet at the following URL:

http://nic.fb4.noaa.gov:80/products/analysis_monitoring/ensostuff/
index.html

The climatic event has been given the name El Ni–o, a Spanish
term for a "boy child," because the warm current first appeared
off the coast of South America around Christmas. Past El Ni–o
events have often caused unusually heavy rain and flooding in
California, unseasonably mild winters in the Eastern United States
and severe droughts in Australia, Africa and Indonesia. Better
predictions of extreme climate episodes like floods and droughts
could save the United States billions of dollars in damage costs.
El Ni–o episodes usually occur approximately every two to seven
years.

Developed by NASA and the French Centre National d'Etudes


Spatiales (CNES), the TOPEX/POSEIDON satellite uses an altimeter
to bounce radar signals off the ocean's surface to get precise
measurements of the distance between the satellite and the sea
surface. These data are combined with measurements from other
instruments that pinpoint the satellite's exact location in space.
Every ten days, scientists produce a complete map of global ocean
topography, the barely perceptible hills and valleys found on the
sea surface. With detailed knowledge of ocean topography,
scientists can then calculate the speed and direction of worldwide
ocean currents.

The Microwave Limb Sounder instrument was originally


designed to study atmospheric ozone depletion, but scientists have
devised new ways of using the data to study atmospheric water
vapor. The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite is completing its
sixth year of operation after being designed for only a two-year
mission, and is conducting an extended mission of longer-term
global monitoring.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the


California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, manages the
TOPEX/POSEIDON mission and the MLS instrument for NASA's Mission
to Planet Earth enterprise, Washington, DC. The UARS satellite is
managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD.

NASA's Mission to Planet Earth is a long-term science


research program designed to study the Earth's land, oceans, air,
ice and life as a total system.

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