Global study to help demystify El Niño

The El Niño phenomenon can cause droughts and flooding Copyright: Flickr/Georgie Sharp

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[LONDON] An international research team will study the climate system of the southeastern Pacific ocean from next month (January).

The programme, VOCALS, aims to better understand El Niño — the complex climate phenomenon that impacts Latin America and other continents in the Southern Hemisphere — and whether it will be affected by climate change.

The periodic reversal of currents in the Pacific Ocean, known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), is characterised by variations in the surface temperature of waters in the eastern Pacific, causing floods and droughts in western Latin America.

The research team for the 3–5 year, US$16 million programme includes 150 scientists from nine countries. The major groups are from universities of Chile, Ecuador, France, Peru, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Roberto Mechoso, professor in the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of California Los Angeles, and chair of the programme, says that obtaining new information is crucial to solve errors in current climate models.

"Is El Niño going to be stronger or weaker if the climate warms up? Our confidence in model predictions of that impact will increase if the models produce a more realistic portrayal of the current climate," says Mechoso.

Groups from the Latin American region contribute their unique knowledge of the local meteorology and oceanography, says Mechoso.

"Other groups provide the expertise and instrumentation to set the problem in a more global domain; all groups win in the exchange of scientific knowledge," he told SciDev.Net.

Rene Garreaud, professor in the department of geophysics at the University of Chile and VOCALS team member, told SciDev.Net that ENSO’s effects on annual modifications of temperature and precipitations vary significantly in different areas of Latin America.

The research programme will also try to understand the dynamics of cloud formation and the effects of aerosols, and use that information to improve climate prediction models.