What's New Archive
Prior to the industrial revolution CO2 was absorbed from the air by land plants, exported via rivers to the ocean and released back into the air creating a balanced cycle on time scales of centuries to millennia. Today, humans are altering this balance by releasing fossil carbon (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas). About one third of fossil CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, changing the ocean from a net source to the air, to a net sink.
Recent results published by the Global Carbon Project (GCP) earlier this month in Earth System Science Data show that global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels did not grow in 2015 and are projected to rise only slightly in 2016, marking three years of almost no growth. The plateau in global emissions is largely the result of reduced coal use in China. However, emissions grew by 5.2% in 2015 in India, the world’s second most populous developing country, and other developing countries.
In spite of a nearly flat growth in emissions, the growth in atmospheric CO2 concentration was a record-high in 2015 and could be a record high again in 2016 due to weak carbon sinks. Carbon sinks refers to a reservoir that accumulates and stores carbon. Natural sinks are in the oceans and land plants, which typically absorb more carbon dioxide than they release. This past year, CO2 was not as readily absorbed by trees due to warm and dry conditions over tropical land caused by the recent 2015-16 El Niño event.
Atmospheric CO2 levels have exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) and will continue to rise until emissions are reduced to near zero. This is the highest level for atmospheric CO2 in at least the last 800,000 years (See GCP Infographics for more details here).
PMEL scientists, Simone Alin, Adrienne Sutton, and Kevin O’Brien provided valuable data about CO2 in the oceans for this report. The Global Carbon Project was formed to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle, including the interactions and feedback between the natural and human systems.
The State of the Climate in 2015 report, published August 2016 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, provides a detailed update on global climate indicators, notable weather events and other environmental data. The report was compiled by 460 scientists, including several PMEL, JISAO and JIMAR scientists. These scientists contributed to sections on the global ocean carbon cycle, ocean heat content and arctic air temperature.
This year’s report has an emphasis on ecosystems, specifically how a changing climate impacts living systems. The report confirmed that 2015 beat 2014 as the warmest year (about 1.0°C warmer) since preindustrial times and that the Mauna Loa observatory recorded its first annual mean carbon dioxide concentration greater than 400 ppm. This year’s exceptional warmth was fueled in part by a nearly year-round mature El Niño event.
Greg Johnson, who co-edited the Global Ocean’s chapter, wrote a haiku summarizing Earth’s climate in 2015:
El Niño waxes,
warm waters shoal, flow eastward,
Earth’s fever rises.
PMEL climate scientists describe in a recently published paper the relationship between the 2014-15 failed El Niño and this year’s monster El Niño as well as any similarities between the past strong El Niño’s. They examined changes in sea surface and sub-surface temperatures, winds, and volumes of warm water in the Pacific Ocean from 2014 to 2016.
What they found was that the highly anticipated 2014-15 El Niño event failed due to unusually strong easterly winds in the summer of 2014 which prevented the warm surface water from shifting eastward as seen in a typical El Niño events and left a reservoir of warm water below the ocean’s surface. This reservoir of warm water combined with strong westerly winds that appeared and continued throughout the spring and summer of 2015 led to the monster El Niño. They found a similar series of events that led to the 1991-92 El Nino event.
A newly updated FAQ answers questions about La Niña, including explanations, detection, impacts and relationship to severe weather events such as hurricanes and tornados.
La Niña is defined as cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific ocean that impact global weather patterns. La Niña conditions recur every few years and can persist for as long as two years.
El Niño and La Niña are extreme phases of a naturally occurring climate cycle referred to as El Niño/Southern Oscillation, and both terms refer to large-scale changes in sea-surface temperature across the eastern tropical Pacific.
Both La Niña and El Niño tend to peak during the Northern Hemisphere winter.
The new El Niño YouTube playlist is a resource including explanations of the predictability of El Niño, the 2014 El Niño that never materialized and the 2015-2016 El Niño that challenges the 1997-1998 El Niño for the largest on record
Learn how and why PMEL developed the El Niño observing system in the tropical Pacific, which includes a narrated animation of the evolution of the 1997-1998 El Niño, the largest on record at the time. You can also view a YouTube animation of the evolution of the 2009-2010 El Niño, which shows the strongest "Central Pacific" El Niño in the past 3 decades, with maximum warming in the central equatorial Pacific (vs the classic El Niño, like 1997-1998, with maximum warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific).
El Niño animations show changes in sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean. As you view them, you will see the warm water spreading from the western Pacific to the eastern Pacific as the El Niño evolves. The bottom panel in the animations, labeled anomalies, shows temperature deviations from normal (how much the sea surface temperature is different from the long term average). The red color in the anomalies plot indicates that the temperature of the water is much warmer than is normal for that month, whereas blue color indicates that the water is much cooler than is normal. Animations of physical processes allow scientists to better understand the El Niño cycle.
PMEL’s Argo float group relies upon and is very grateful for assistance from scientists and crew in deploying PMEL Argo floats on a variety of ships in oceans around the globe. PMEL Argo recently sent six floats to the R/V Falkor of the Schimdt Ocean Institute for deployment on a science cruise studying oxygen minimum zones across in the tropical Pacific. Float deployments during this cruise helped to fill a coverage gap in the Argo array that had opened up in this crucial region during a significant El Niño. As an unexpected bonus, artist-at-sea Michelle Schwengel-Regala was yarn-bombing on the Falkor during this cruise. Here are pictures of two PMEL Argo floats on the Falkor nestled in her dazzling knitted float-cozies! The yarn was removed and repurposed prior to deployment of the floats, all of which are now reporting vital ocean temperature and salinity data back from the tropical Pacific, monitoring the evolving El Niño.
Research and commentary articles just published online in Nature Climate Change by NOAA/PMEL Senior Scientist Michael McPhaden and collaborators highlights the need for continued study into El Niño causes and effects.
McPhaden’s commentary explores possible reasons why the much anticipated El Niño of 2014 failed to materialize, while an unforeseen strong El Niño is developing now. In the same issue, a review paper by McPhaden and colleagues explores the connection between global warming and El Niño/La Niña events. Model results indicate that extreme El Niño and La Niña events will increase in number and intensity as the climate continues to warm.
The State of the Climate in 2014 report, published in July 2015 as a Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society supplement, highlights records in sea level, ocean heat content, and sea surface temperature, also documenting ocean climate variability including the borderline El Niño, the warm-water “Blob” in the Northeast Pacific, and a transition to the warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The cover features a PMEL Argo float, deployed in September 2007 and still active in July 2015. PMEL scientist Gregory Johnson co-edited the Global Oceans chapter of the report, composing haiku to summarize 2014 ocean variations:
Not quite El Niño, | North Oceans’ fluxes, warmth shift, | dance with weird weather.
and longer-term changes:
Seas warm, ice caps melt, | waters rise, sour, rains shift salt, | unceasing, worldwide.
Several PMEL, JISAO, and JIMAR scientists are section authors.
From April–June 2015, scientists on the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown are collecting observations of Pacific Ocean water properties and currents from Tahiti to Alaska. This expedition is part of the US GO-SHIP Repeat Hydrography Program, an international effort to measure and observe the changing global ocean every decade. This particular cruise fortuitously crossed the equator during a developing El Niño and shortly after a transition to the warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, allowing study of how these climate variations affect ocean conditions such as biological production and heat transport.
An El Niño in the equatorial Pacific is expected to play a dominant role in the winter weather for the U.S. Temperatures are expected to be warmer than average across most of the western and central U.S. with cooler than average temperatures in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states.
For more information on how PMEL helps detect El Niños please visit the NOAA El Niño web site.