El Niño and La Niña, their impact on ocean temperature and global warming

In this article, we explore El Niño and La Niña and what impact they have on climate change and the temperatures of our oceans and seas

Ste Wright | 4 min read

El Niño and La Niña are natural climate phenomena in the tropical Pacific Ocean, profoundly influencing global weather patterns. These events, characterized by deviations in sea surface temperatures, trigger a series of atmospheric changes that can have far-reaching consequences. Let's explore the mechanisms behind El Niño and La Niña and their significant impact on sea temperature, especially when combined with global warming.

Understanding El Niño and La Niña

El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of a larger climate cycle known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The cycle is named after El Niño, meaning "the Christ child" in Spanish, as Peruvian fishermen first recognised it during the Christmas season.

During normal, non-ENSO conditions, trade winds blow east to west across the Pacific Ocean, pushing warm surface waters towards the western Pacific, near Indonesia. This leads to the upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich waters along the coasts of South America. These conditions are known as La Niña or the cold phase of ENSO.

Pacific ocean flora
El Niño is a climate cycle that pushes warmer water to the western Pacific

El Niño, on the other hand, occurs when the trade winds weaken or reverse, causing a weakening or even a reversal of the oceanic current pattern. This leads to the warming of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, resulting in a significant rise in sea surface temperatures. El Niño can disrupt weather patterns worldwide, often leading to extreme events such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes.

Impact on Sea and Ocean Temperature

El Niño and La Niña play a vital role in regulating sea temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean and beyond. Let's take a closer look at how each phase influences these temperatures:

El Niño

During El Niño events, the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific can rise by several degrees Celsius. These warm conditions affect ocean currents, altering the distribution of heat around the globe. As a result, the overall sea temperature rises in affected regions, including adjacent coastlines.

Bleached sea coral
El Niño contributes to coral bleaching

The elevated sea surface temperatures associated with El Niño have various implications. For example, they can disrupt marine ecosystems, leading to coral bleaching and a decline in fish populations. Additionally, warmer ocean temperatures can provide favorable conditions for the development and intensification of tropical cyclones, potentially leading to more frequent and severe hurricanes.

La Niña

La Niña, in contrast, is characterized by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. This cooling effect leads to increased upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters along the coasts of South America, supporting thriving marine ecosystems.

Rain in Hawaii
La Niña often results in wetter conditions in parts of the western United States

The lower sea surface temperatures during La Niña have specific consequences. They can affect global weather patterns, influencing the formation of storm systems and the intensity and distribution of precipitation. For instance, La Niña often results in wetter conditions in parts of the western United States, while regions like Australia and Southeast Asia may experience drier weather.

El Niño and Global Warming

El Niño and La Niña are prominent climate phenomena that profoundly impact sea temperature. While El Niño brings warmer oceanic conditions, disrupting marine ecosystems and contributing to extreme weather events, La Niña fosters cooler temperatures, influencing precipitation patterns worldwide. Understanding and monitoring these climate patterns is crucial for predicting and mitigating their effects on ecosystems, economies, and society. By studying the dance of El Niño and La Niña, we gain valuable insights into the delicate balance of our global climate system.

The combination of El Niño and global warming leads to heightened impacts on climate and the environment. El Niño events, amplified by global warming, result in elevated sea surface temperatures, intensification of extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes, disruption of marine ecosystems, and increased coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. The interaction between El Niño and global warming exacerbates these effects, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive measures to mitigate climate change and adapt to its consequences.