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Satellite detects early warning signs of an El Niño event

In an intriguing development from the world of climate science, the U.S.-European satellite Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich has detected early signs of a potential El Niño event across the equatorial Pacific Ocean. The satellite data indicates the presence of Kelvin waves, which are approximately two to four inches high and hundreds of miles wide.

These colossal waves, moving along the equator from west to east, are currently on a journey toward the western coast of South America. Originating at the equator, Kelvin waves carry warmer water and are associated with higher sea levels. These waves migrate from the western Pacific, where the water is warmer, to the eastern Pacific, significantly impacting the region’s climate dynamics.

The beginning of spring often witnesses the onset of these Kelvin waves, and their appearance is a widely recognized early warning of an upcoming El Niño. This climate phenomenon has a significant influence on global weather patterns, marked by increased sea levels and warmer-than-average ocean temperatures along the western coasts of the American continents.

As water expands when it warms, regions with warmer waters generally experience higher sea levels. The El Niño effect is also linked to a decrease in the intensity of trade winds. This climate system could usher in cooler, more humid conditions for the Southwest U.S., while simultaneously leading to drought conditions in western Pacific nations such as Indonesia and Australia.

The data from Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, covering a period from the start of March till the end of April 2023, has provided these intriguing insights. By April 24, the Kelvin waves had accumulated warmer water which corresponded with higher sea levels off the coasts of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Satellites like Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich employ radar altimeters, instruments using microwave signals to gauge the height of the ocean’s surface. When such an altimeter traverses areas warmer than others, the recorded data displays increased sea levels.

Josh Willis is a Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We’ll be watching this El Niño like a hawk. If it’s a big one, the globe will see record warming, but here in the Southwest U.S. we could be looking at another wet winter, right on the heels of the soaking we got last winter,” said Willis.

Recent reports from both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the World Meteorological Organization highlight an increased likelihood of an El Niño event by the end of the summer. The continuous surveillance of ocean conditions in the Pacific, facilitated by instruments and satellites such as Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, should provide more clarity on the potential strength of this El Niño in the coming months.

Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer, NASA program scientist and manager for Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich in Washington, emphasized the significance of satellite altimeters. “When we measure sea level from space using satellite altimeters, we know not only the shape and height of water, but also its movement, like Kelvin and other waves. Ocean waves slosh heat around the planet, bringing heat and moisture to our coasts and changing our weather.”

This unfolding scenario underscores the crucial role of advanced satellite technology in monitoring and understanding our ever-changing global climate patterns. Data from the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite could provide us with valuable insights into the upcoming El Niño event and its potential worldwide impacts.

More about El Niño

El Niño is a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters along the tropical Pacific Ocean. It is one part of a broader climate cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which also includes the cooler La Niña phase and the intermediary neutral phase.

El Niño events occur irregularly, typically every two to seven years, and can last anywhere from 9 months to 2 years. They are characterized by warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, near the equator. This warming can lead to a shift in atmospheric circulation patterns, affecting weather conditions globally.

The impacts of El Niño can vary but often include higher global temperatures, increased rainfall in the southern United States and Peru, and drought conditions in the Western Pacific regions, such as Indonesia and Australia. It can also cause a reduction in the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water off the coast of South America, which can negatively impact marine life and the fishing industry.

The term “El Niño” (Spanish for “the boy”) was originally used by fishermen off the coast of Peru and Ecuador to refer to a warm ocean current that appeared around Christmas time. It was later adopted by scientists to refer to these periodic, more extensive warming events. The opposite phase, La Niña, is characterized by cooler than average sea surface temperatures in the same region of the Pacific.

Understanding and predicting El Niño events is crucial for managing their impacts on agriculture, fisheries, water resources, and more. This is where monitoring and early detection systems, like the U.S.-European satellite Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, come into play, providing valuable data to help prepare for and mitigate the effects of these climate phenomena.


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