Senior Editor

The Inertia

El Niño plays a very large role in our lives. Not just our surfing lives, either–it affects the weather for the entire planet. NCI, Australia’s national research computing facility, created a stunning video showing exactly how one of the most complex climate systems on earth works.

El Niños are at the root of what controls global weather patterns, so how it all works is very complicated. It’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around the various outcomes, but researchers at NCI are hoping their project will help meteorologists better understand what’s to come. In turn, planning for future events will be a little easier for people like farmers and disaster response groups.

The animation is a re-creation of exactly what happened in 1997-1998 when an El Niño of record-breaking proportions swept the Pacific Rim. Generally, an El Niño year is followed by La Niñas, which, according to the NOAA, is “characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, compared to El Niño, which is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific.” NCI’s animation shows ocean temperatures to a depth nearly 1000 feet along with the atmospheric effects. Australia’s largest supercomputer took 30,000 hours of processing time to create it.

Unless you read Climate Depot, a website run by Marco Morano (who has no formal education in climate science and was voted “Climate Change Misinformer of the Year” by Media Matters for America) that panders to morons, you’re aware that 2015-2016 broke all sorts of temperature records. According to NASA (a much more respectable organization than Climate Depot), “Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880. The six-month period from January to June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the late nineteenth century.”


Both a strong El Niño and the overall warming of the planet contributed to the strange year. “While the El Niño event in the tropical Pacific this winter gave a boost to global temperatures from October onwards, it is the underlying trend which is producing these record numbers,” Gavin Schmidt, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told NASA.

While the El Niño event did have a hand in larger than average storms over 2015 and 2016, the build-up of greenhouses gasses drove the events, a fact that is only disputed by a few fringe researchers. “Both trends are ultimately driven by rising concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere,” wrote Patrick Lynch, the Senior Earth Science Communications Manager at NASA.

The ’97/’98 El Niño wreaked havoc on the earth’s weather patterns, leading to far-reaching disasters including (but not limited to) devasting wildfires in Indonesia, a global coral bleaching event, and flooding in a drought-stricken California.


“The animation shows how shifting pools of warmer or cooler than average water 300m below the surface of the ocean can trigger these powerful events,” said Dr Alex Sen Gupta of Australia’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science in a statement. “When these pools of water burst through to the surface and link up with the atmosphere they can set off a chain reaction that leads to El Niños or La Niñas.”


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