El Nino Explained, Plus Common Misconceptions

IRI Map on Current Global Sea Surface Temperatures Image

Image via: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

El Nino, La Nina, what does each mean and why should we care? Well, the scientists at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society have put together a handy guide to answer just such questions, and more importantly, dispel common myths. Item #1: We're currently in an El Nino? True.First, the basics. El Nino is another name for the warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, along the equator which lasts roughly a year. The La Nina is the opposite pattern - a cooling of waters in the Pacific Ocean along the equator. These warming and cooling patterns are responsible for changes in rainfall, temperature and other weather patterns around the globe. What does this mean for you? These changes are linked with spread of diseases, crop loss, wildfires and droughts - each of which can mean economic impacts for countries around the globe. Here is a very condensed version of answers to common misconceptions about these two global phenomena:

Do El Nino Periods Cause More Disasters Than Normal Periods? Globally, no, but they do allow scientists to make better predictions about certain areas.

Does El Nino and La Nina Significantly Affect Areas Around the Globe? No, only about 25% of land area around the globe.

Do Affected Areas See Changes Throughout the Entire El Nino or La Nina Period? No, most areas are only affected during one season, not the entire 8-12 months.

Do El Ninos Only Bring Bad Things? No, besides flooding and fires, El Ninos also bring milder winters and more rainfall in some areas.

Are El Ninos Worse Than La Ninas? Not necessarily. El Nino's typically receive more attention in the media, and La Ninas tend to amplify normal conditions thus are not perceived as negative.

Is it True That the Stronger the El Nino/La Nina, the Worse Weather A Region Can Expect? Not always, though it does sometimes happen. El Nino/La Nina simply shift the odds of experiencing more rainfall or drought, for example but it does not guarantee a one to one relationship.

El Ninos Are Responsible For Specific Weather Events? Nope. They affect the frequency of seeing these events but are not directly responsible for every wildfire or hurricane.

El Nino and La Nina Are Just Names for Global Warming? Also nope. They are related, and global warming may affect these cycles, but they have been around for millions of years and the research on their relationship is still ongoing.

For more detailed explanations of each of these ideas, checkout the IRI page on El Nino and Climate Change. :International Research Institute on Climate & Society
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