El Niño Isn't Letting Up

Forecasters predict the United States still has yet to experience the brunt of its erratic weather.
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Forecasters predict the United States still has yet to experience the brunt of its erratic weather.
The latest satellite image of Pacific sea surface heights from Jason-2 (left) differs slightly from one 18 years ago from Topex/Poseidon (right). In December 1997, sea surface height was more intense and peaked in November. This year the area of high sea levels is less intense but considerably broader. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The latest satellite image of Pacific sea surface heights from Jason-2 (left) differs slightly from one 18 years ago from Topex/Poseidon (right). In December 1997, sea surface height was more intense and peaked in November. This year the area of high sea levels is less intense but considerably broader. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

El Niño is still growing and doesn't look to be slowing down, according to new satellite images of the Pacific Ocean released last week by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. While El Niño is largely to blame for the rash of unseasonably warm, record-breaking weather stretching from Texas to Maine, forecasters predict the United States still has yet to experience the brunt of its erratic climates.

During an El Niño, westward-blowing trade winds in the Pacific change direction or weaken, sparking a reversal of ocean temperatures around the word. NASA's latest satellite image of the Pacific Ocean looks almost identical to similar images taken in 1997, one of the most powerful El Niños in history. On both satellite images, particularly warm surface waters are illustrated in red and white, while normal ocean conditions are illustrated in green. This year's El Niño envelops some six million square miles, an area twice as big as the U.S.

"Both reflect the classic pattern of a fully developed El Niño," according to NASA, although sea surface heights, which typically indicate warm waters, were higher in 1997. So far, sea levels are less intense this year, but "considerably broader" in scope. Both satellite images reveal "unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the central and eastern Pacific: the signature of a big and powerful El Niño," NASA states.

This year's El Niño has caused warmer oceans surrounding Australia and Indonesia to cool, while the waters of the central and eastern tropical Pacific are warmer than usual. Ocean temperatures have also risen overall from the Central Pacific to the Americas. Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the full effects of El Niño in the U.S. will likely be felt within the next several months. Cool, wet weather is expected across the South, while warm, dry weather is expected throughout the northern part of the country. In drought-stricken California, a number of El Niño-related storms have already dumped much-welcomed snow across the Sierra Nevada—as many as 36 inches of powder in two days fell on Mammoth Mountain in November. Researchers caution, however, that any El Niño-related precipitation won't be nearly enough to put an end to the state's worrisome water woes.

When ocean temperatures climb, powerful new storm tracks and jet streams follow suit, creating a ripple effect of extreme weather felt worldwide. In Ethiopia, where El Niño has exacerbated the country's continuing drought, as many as 10.2 million people could need humanitarian assistance, to the tune of $1.4 billion, according to Oxfam. Meanwhile, drought across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua has left some two million people in need of food aid, according to the United Nations. The complex weather pattern is also responsible for catastrophic drought and wildfire throughout Indonesia, as well as one of the worst heat waves in recent history across India.

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