Environment & Science

New satellite images from NASA portend a powerful El Niño

In Dec. 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.
In Dec. 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.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new pair of satellite images released by NASA on Tuesday reveals that a big, powerful El Niño could indeed be coming in the early months of 2016.

The images show unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the Pacific Ocean in December 1997 — the last year that a major El Niño event occurred — and in December 2015. That means a thick layer of warm water is present that could lead to a powerful El Niño, according to the release that NASA sent out with the images on Tuesday.

"The way the satellite measures the El Niño is by looking at the height of the ocean. High sea levels mean warm water — not just at the surface but over depth. This satellite image is telling us that they’re more like 8 to 10 inches above normal, which is how high they got in 1997 and in 1998," Josh Willis, project scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told KPCC.

Willis said the satellite images showed that this year's El Niño was not quite as intense as the 1997-'98 event but covered a bigger area of the eastern Pacific Ocean.

"The 1997-'98 El Niño stands out in our memory here in Southern California as being a huge event. We got double the rainfall that we normally get in California and double the snowpack, and we could really use that right now because we've been in a multi-year drought," Willis said.

Willis predicts in January, "El Niño's going to turn the faucet on and we’re going to be drinking from the fire hose."

Here's more from NASA:

El Niños are triggered when the steady, westward-blowing trade winds in the Pacific weaken or even reverse direction, triggering a dramatic warming of the upper ocean in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. Clouds and storms follow the warm water, pumping heat and moisture high into the overlying atmosphere. These changes alter jet stream paths and affect storm tracks all over the world.

Read the latest El Niño forecast at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.  

You can also check out our tracking of ocean surface temperatures here: