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Clarifying El Nino and La Nina

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

With climate change a hot topic in both popular culture and academic circles today, a basic understanding of the fundamentals which drive climate on this planet ought to be compulsory for all young adults. Common misconceptions about weather and climate have become accepted as truths, and misleading statements can be heard in many conversations. This is dangerous, as many people strive to gain knowledge and utilize for the betterment of both themselves and society.

One specific thing I feel deserves attention is the use of the terms El Nino and La Nina. Often seen as all-powerful drivers of climate and weather on the planet, the two are simply opposites in sea-surface temperature (known as SSTs) anomalies in the Pacific Ocean along the Equator. El Nino is when those SSTs are above average, and La Nina is when they are below average. This doesn't mean that El Nino events cause warmer temperatures in the United States and La Ninas colder. The Earth is too complex of a system to be that simple. They undoubtedly do have an effect on climate, however. But those effects aren't as simple as they are made out to be in the media.

2010-2011 Winter

2011-2012 Winter

Take a look at the two images above. The first is a map of temperature anomalies in the United States for the 2010-2011 winter, and the second the same but for 2011-2012. Orange and red areas signify a warmer than average winter, and blue areas cooler than average. What's important here is that both of these winters were officially classified as La Nina winters. It's also important to note differences in warmth and cold across the country. Not every part of the country was affected equally. Another example would be the winters of 1997-1998 and 2009-2010. Both were characterized by fairly strong El Nino events, but the 1997-1998 was very warm for the majority of the country, and 2009-2010 cold. These are just two of many examples of why things like El Nino and La Nina should not be used by themselves when speaking on climate, especially in forecasting. They can be misleading, and the examples provided here are the proof. There are many other indices the scientific world has developed which aren't used as much in the media, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the Arctic Oscillation (AO), and Pacific Decadal Osciallation (PDO). These, as well as many others, are worth looking into, as a combination of as many of these climate indicators as possible will often produce a more accurate understanding of how the Earth's climate works. The system we've developed for weather forecasting is very complex and dynamic. Now that global climate change has become a part of popular culture, it's crucial for more and more people to have at the very least a basic understanding of meteorology, weather, and climate.



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