University Park, Pa. -- Perhaps the largest El Niño of the century is currently underway, and a team of scientists is remotely watching the sky, hoping that they can learn from this event.
"A year ago we set up a ground-based observing station in the Western Pacific on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that is intended to last a decade," says Dr. Thomas P. Ackerman, professor of meteorology at Penn State. "The timing was near-perfect, we got measurements before El Niño, now we are getting measurements during El Niño, and I hope we will get measurements after it passes."
The observing station is part of the Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program. Another observing station already exists in rural Oklahoma and others are planned. The program will collect continuous cloud observations and measurements for a decade in an effort to evaluate and develop cloud property and radiation algorithms for the global climate models, and to better understand phenomena like El Niño.
"We have records of El Niño quite far back, but the largest in recent history occurred in 1982-83," says Ackerman who also is associate director of Penn State's Earth System Science Center. "Right now, the 1997 El Niño is the biggest we have on record, although it is expected to begin to contract in late fall."
El Niño is of serious concern because it affects weather patterns across the Pacific and in North and South America. During an El Niño, the western coasts of the Americas become very wet and hurricanes spawn off the Pacific coast of Mexico, track up through Southern California and dump rain on such normally arid states as Arizona and New Mexico. The northern tier of North America becomes warmer and the southern tier becomes colder. The Southwest, Midwest and Southeast become wetter. The Northeast is little affected by El Niño.