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TAO Definitions of El Nino, La Nina, and ENSO

Definitions of El Nino, La Nina, and ENSO

El Niño (EN) is characterized by a large scale weakening of the trade winds and warming of the surface layers in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño events occur irregularly at intervals of 2-7 years, although the average is about once every 3-4 years. They typically last 12-18 months, and are accompanied by swings in the Southern Oscillation (SO), an interannual see-saw in tropical sea level pressure between the eastern and western hemispheres. During El Niño, unusually high atmospheric sea level pressures develop in the western tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, and unusually low sea level pressures develop in the southeastern tropical Pacific. SO tendencies for unusually low pressures west of the date line and high pressures east of the date line have also been linked to periods of anomalously cold equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs) sometimes referred to as La Niña.

The Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), defined as the normalized difference in surface pressure between Tahiti, French Polynesia and Darwin, Australia is a measure of the strength of the trade winds, which have a component of flow from regions of high to low pressure. High SOI (large pressure difference) is associated with stronger than normal trade winds and La Niña conditions, and low SOI (smaller pressure difference) is associated with weaker than normal trade winds and El Niño conditions. The terms ENSO and ENSO cycle are used to describe the full range of variability observed in the Southern Oscillation Index, including both El Niño and La Niña events.

There has been a confusing range of uses for the terms El Niño, La Niña and ENSO by both the scientific community and the general public. Originally, the term El Niño (in reference to the Christ child) denoted a warm southward flowing ocean current that occured every year around Christmas time off the west coast of Peru and Ecuador. The term was later restricted to unusually strong warmings that disrupted local fish and bird populations every few years. However, as a result of the frequent association of South American coastal temperature anomalies with interannual basin scale equatorial warm events, El Niño has also become synonymous with larger scale, climatically significant, warm events. There is not, however, unanimity in the use of the term El Niño. The tendency in the scientific community though is to refer interchangeably to El Niño, ENSO warm event, or the warm phase of ENSO as those times of warm eastern and central equatorial Pacific SST anomalies. Conversely, the terms La Niña, ENSO cold event, or cold phase of ENSO are used interchangeably to describe those times of cold eastern and central equatorial Pacific SST anomalies.

The terms "El Viejo" and "anti-El Niño" have also been applied to the cold phase of ENSO. However, these terms are used less frequently, as the term La Niña has gained currency.



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