Climate chaos: How El Nino changes the weather

From a monster El Nino to climate change, TechKnow investigates the cause and effect of the current climate chaos.

El Nino, a powerful weather system, is responsible for the current climate chaos parts of the world have suffered over the past year, and continue to be affected by.

Severe fires and drought leading to food shortages continue to plague 11 South Pacific countries, flooding in Central America has led to thousands of evacuations and sea life is disappearing from its natural habitat, only to reappear in new areas miles away.

The Pacific covers 30 percent of the planet... when the Pacific speaks, we'd better listen.

by Bill Patzert , research scientist, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

An El Nino is defined as an interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere, which happens in the tropical Pacific ocean, at the equator. There are different sizes of El Nino – with which the effects on the affected areas differ – ranging from small to medium, large and the 2015 El Nino, nicknamed the “Godzilla”.

El Ninos are also not to be confused with climate change. While an El Nino is a naturally occurring phenomenon, climate change is a man-made – some argue irreversible – trend created mostly via the emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Every three to seven years, the surface waters of the tropical Southern Pacific ocean either warm or cool by 1 to 3 degrees Celsius, creating weather conditions that are often the exact opposite of the norm.

The El Nino Southern Oscillation, known as ENSO, is when the surface waters experience the warming. The reverse effect, as brought on by the cooling of the surface waters, is known as La Nina. 

Scientists and researchers are studying El Nino and its effects through a variety of methods.

NASA has launched a series of satellites to study the earth’s oceans – in particular the heat within the oceans which is key to understanding El Nino – and predict weather changes. 

In the water, however, sea life can tell an entirely different story from the facts and figures collected by NASA from space.

Researchers at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) are studying the effects of El Nino on the creatures living in the oceans. One example of the impact is when in November 2015, California state officials closed the $60m crab industry because domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by algae, was found in marine life.

“When we eat the infected crabs, you can get all sorts of serious neurological issues … really bad stuff leading to death,” says Jenn Caselle, a research biologist with the Marine Science Institute at UCSB.

Infrastructure is also being prepared for the El Nino storms and one such engineering feat is the Morris Dam – an important part of the Los Angeles county water system.

In this scenario, the hope is that El Nino will in fact bring heavy rains, so that the dam can capture the supplies. However, with the captured water being stored in heavily polluted ground water basins, even the potential benefits of El Nino, such as helping to ease the drought in Southern California, have all but failed the state and hopeful scientists.