Climate Science Glossary

Term Lookup

Enter a term in the search box to find its definition.


Use the controls in the far right panel to increase or decrease the number of terms automatically displayed (or to completely turn that feature off).

Term Lookup


All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

Home Arguments Software Resources Comments The Consensus Project Translations About Support

Twitter Facebook YouTube Mastodon MeWe

RSS Posts RSS Comments Email Subscribe

Climate's changed before
It's the sun
It's not bad
There is no consensus
It's cooling
Models are unreliable
Temp record is unreliable
Animals and plants can adapt
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
View All Arguments...

New? Register here
Forgot your password?

Latest Posts


El Niño is Earth's rechargeable heat battery

Posted on 15 April 2016 by John Abraham

The recent El Niño has been in the news of late because the warm waters in the Pacific have helped lift Earth’s temperatures to new records. Recent research is helping to track energy flows between the ocean waters and the atmosphere as the El Niño builds, then slowly decays and even changes to a La Niña. This new information is an important advancement of our understanding of the Earth’s climate.

As a background, a part of the Pacific Ocean flips between cold (La Niña) and warm (El Niño) phases over a few-year-long period. Sometimes the oceans are in neither a cold or warm phase, and we call that neutral.

The flipping back and forth always occurs, but the duration and regularity can change. In general, the cycles occur over 3 to 7 years, sometimes with longer duration, other times shorter. But regardless, this El Niño/La Niña process is really important for the rest of the world. It affects the whole atmosphere through what are termed teleconnections.

Consider for instance a situation when the waters are warm (El Niño), resulting in more evaporation from the ocean waters into the atmosphere. Conversely when the ocean waters are cold, there is often less evaporation. Because evaporation requires a great deal of thermal energy – it cools the ocean while moistening the atmosphere – it’s an engine that moves heat. 

Simply put, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO; the latter is in the atmosphere) cycle can supercharge this movement of energy, or it can temporarily sequester the heat. But regardless, once the energy gets into the atmosphere, it changes the atmospheric winds around the globe and affects weather elsewhere.

So, a new study, led by Dr. Michael Mayer from the University of Vienna, focused on the energy flows during the ENSO process. The study recalls prior work that has led to a view of ENSO that is a bit like a rechargeable battery. During La Niña, heat builds up in the Pacific and then during El Niño, the heat is dissipated to other regions. The dissipation occurs in both laterally via atmospheric energy transports and vertically via radiation to space. When the warm water moistens the air (through evaporation), it invigorates storms and flow of energy in the atmosphere. As a result of these teleconnections, a substantial fraction of the heat released from the Pacific during El Niño subsequently appears in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

The authors also looked at climate models, which are computerized representations of actual processes occurring in the real world. They wanted to know how well models reproduce the energy flows associated with ENSO. Traditionally, models have struggled to correctly simulate ENSO. The authors found that models tend to underestimate the ENSO processes in the upper 700 meters of the Pacific. While observations show substantial cooling of the tropical Pacific during El Niño as measured by ocean heat content, most models lack this typical signature.

This is related to biases in simulated low-level clouds, which in turn influence the amount of absorbed solar radiation. In addition, the authors found that models in general struggle to get the winds associated with ENSO correct, which hampers their ability to correctly simulate vertical redistribution of heat within the Pacific. Moreover, the models underestimate the strength of teleconnections to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

While models continue to get better, their current errors have to be considered when using them, and further improvements are necessary. But practice makes perfect and studies like this advance their capabilities. Such improvements are essential if we are to better understand the intersection of El Niño and climate change, and where and how extreme weather events occur.

I communicated with Dr. Mayer and he told me,

Click here to read the rest

0 0

Printable Version  |  Link to this page


Comments 1 to 1:

  1. Since water vapour is a green house gas, during an ElNino with increased water vapour, the green house effect should be enhanced.

    0 0

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or if you're new, register here.

The Consensus Project Website


(free to republish)

© Copyright 2023 John Cook
Home | Translations | About Us | Privacy | Contact Us