the color of El Niño
by John Weier - August 19, 1999
 
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With the way things are going, El Niño and its counterpart La Niña may be blamed for every natural disaster on the planet. Hardly a month has gone by in the past four years when there hasn’t been a report tying El Niño or its counterpart La Niña to some devastating event. The phenomena have already been linked to everything from tornadoes in the midwestern United States to fires in Indonesia to hurricanes in Central America. But Earth scientists still have much to learn about how the phenomena affect weather systems around the world. Many questions regarding the root cause and physics behind the two events remain unanswered. Predicting exactly when and with what force El Niño or La Niña will strike continues to be elusive.

To improve our understanding of El Niño, Raghu Murtugudde and a team of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have been observing algae in the Pacific Ocean. They believe that by watching the algae’s movements during El Niños and La Niñas they can gain insight into the processes that drive these events.

Their initial results show promise. Using the first year of data returned from NASA's new Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS), the scientists have found a way to detect the end of El Niño and the beginning of La Niña a month earlier than anyone else. In the future, the researchers hope to detect other stages of the phenomenas' development and then create models to predict the events' occurrence and their destructive force years in advance.

next El Niño’s Effect on Algae

The data used in this study are available in one or more of NASA's Earth Science Data Centers.

 

El Niño Waves
This beach in Santa Cruz, CA was hammered by large waves throughout the winter of 1997–1998. The frequent storms along the coast of California that season were linked to El Niño. (Photograph courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

To learn more about El Niño and La Niña, read the fact sheets located in the Earth Observatory Library.

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