NOAA launches unprecedented effort to discover how El Niño affects weather

Pacific research goal is to improve accuracy of weather forecasts and models


February 5, 2016

N49RF -- Scientists aboard NOAA's Gulfstream IV aircraft are dropping weather instruments and using Doppler radar in the aircraft's tail during flights over the Pacific in research designed to improve the accuracy of weather forecasts and models. (Credit: NOAA)

Scientists aboard NOAA's Gulfstream IV aircraft are dropping weather instruments and using Doppler radar in the aircraft's tail during flights over the Pacific in research designed to improve the accuracy of weather forecasts and models. (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA scientists and partners have embarked on a land, sea, and air campaign in the tropical Pacific to study the current El Niño and gather data in an effort to improve weather forecasts thousands of miles away.

The El Niño Rapid Response Field Campaign will deploy NOAA’s Gulfstream IV research plane and NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown, NASA’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft equipped with specialized sensors, and researchers stationed on Kiritimati (Christmas) Island in the Republic of Kiribati, approximately 1,340 miles south of Honolulu. Together, scientists will collect atmospheric data from this vast and remote expanse of the tropical Pacific where El Niño-driven weather systems are spawned.

“The rapid response field campaign will give us an unprecedented look at how the warm ocean is influencing the atmosphere at the heart of this very strong El Niño,” said Craig McLean, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Research. “This research will help us understand the first link in the chain that produces, among many other weather impacts, extreme precipitation events on the West Coast.”

Scientists on NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown will launch weather balloons up to eight times a day in the eastern tropical Pacific to help study the current El Niño. (Credit: NOAA).

Scientists on NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown will launch weather balloons up to eight times a day in the eastern tropical Pacific to help study the current El Niño. (Credit: NOAA)

El Niño is a recurring climate phenomenon, characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, that increases the odds for warm and dry winters across the northern United States and cool, wet winters across the south. El Niño is the warm phase of the ocean cycle known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO for short. La Niña is the cool phase. The pattern can shift back and forth every two to seven years, disrupting weather patterns across the globe.

During the two strongest El Niños before this, California has been soaked by intense rainstorms causing flooding, landslides and other property damage. NOAA scientists say this event is among the strongest El Niños on record, comparable to the last major event in 1997-98. How much precipitation this El Niño will deliver to California is a subject of intense interest to a region struggling to manage the effects of an historic drought.

NOAA researchers anticipate that the data gathered by weather balloons and instruments dropped from aircraft will help improve the models that are used to support weather forecasts. The data will also provide insights that researchers hope will improve year-to-year ENSO forecasts, as well as the accuracy of models predicting longer-term effects of climate change.

NASA's Global Hawk unmanned aircraft is equipped with sensors to gather weather information over the Pacific as part of the NOAA and partner campaign. (Credit: Gijs de Boer, CIRES)

NASA's Global Hawk unmanned aircraft is equipped with sensors to gather weather information over the Pacific as part of the NOAA and partner campaign. (Credit: Gijs de Boer, CIRES)

“This has never been done with a major El Niño,” said Randall Dole, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado. “A field campaign ordinarily takes years to plan and execute. But we recognized what an important opportunity we had and everyone worked hard to pull this mission together.”

Here is a list of NOAA and partner assets deployed to support the El Niño Rapid Response Field Campaign:

To learn more about El Niño and its impacts, visit: https://www.climate.gov/enso

To learn more about NOAA’s El Niño Rapid Response Field Campaign visit: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/enso/rapid_response/

Follow along with researchers in the field here: https://medium.com/el-ni%C3%B1o-rapid-response-blog

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