El Niño /ɛl ˈniːnjoʊ/ (Spanish pronunciation: [el ˈniɲo])
is the warm phase of the
El Niño Southern Oscillation
El Niño Southern Oscillation (commonly
called ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that
develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific (between
International Date Line
International Date Line and 120°W), including off
the Pacific coast of South America.
El Niño Southern Oscillation
refers to the cycle of warm and cold temperatures, as measured by sea
surface temperature, SST, of the tropical central and eastern Pacific
El Niño is accompanied by high air pressure in the western
Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern Pacific. The cool phase of
ENSO is called "La Niña" with SST in the eastern Pacific below
average and air pressures high in the eastern and low in western
Pacific. The ENSO cycle, both
El Niño and La Niña, cause global
changes of both temperatures and rainfall.
Developing countries that are dependent upon agriculture and fishing,
particularly those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are usually most
affected. In American Spanish, the capitalized term "El Niño" refers
to "the little boy", so named because the pool of warm water in the
South America is often at its warmest around
Christmas. The original name, "
El Niño de Navidad", traces its
origin centuries back to Peruvian fishermen, who named the weather
phenomenon in reference to the newborn Christ. "La Niña",
chosen as the 'opposite' of El Niño, literally translates to "the
3 Cultural history and prehistoric information
5 Effects on the global climate
5.1 Tropical cyclones
5.2 Remote influence on tropical Atlantic Ocean
6 Regional impacts
6.1 Australia and the Southern Pacific
6.5 North America
6.6 South America
7 Effects on humanity
7.1 Economic effect
7.2 Health and social effects
9 Further reading
10 External links
Originally the term
El Niño applied to an annual weak warm ocean
current that ran southwards along the coast of
Christmas time. However, over time the term has evolved and
now refers to the warm and negative phase of the
El Niño Southern
Oscillation and is the warming of the ocean surface or above-average
sea surface temperatures in either the central and eastern tropical
Pacific Ocean. This warming causes a shift in the atmospheric
circulation with rainfall becoming reduced over Indonesia and
Australia, while rainfall and tropical cyclone formation increases
over the tropical Pacific Ocean. The low-level surface trade
winds, which normally blow from east to west along the equator, either
weaken or start blowing from the other direction.
Map showing Niño3.4 and other index regions
El Niño events are thought to have been occurring for
thousands of years. For example, it is thought that El Niño
Inca Empire in modern-day Peru, who sacrificed humans in
order to try to prevent the rains. Scientists have also found the
chemical signatures of warmer sea surface temperatures and increased
rainfall caused by
El Niño in coral specimens that are around
13,000 years old. In around 1525 when
Francisco Pizarro made
landfall on Peru, he noted rainfall occurring in the deserts which
subsequently became the first written record of the impacts of El
Niño. Modern day research and reanalysis techniques have managed
to find at least 26
El Niño events since 1900, with the 1982-83,
1997–98 and 2014–16 events among the strongest on
Currently, each country has a different threshold for what constitutes
El Niño event, which is tailored to their specific interests.
For example, the Australian
Bureau of Meteorology
Bureau of Meteorology looks at the trade
winds, SOI, weather models and sea surface temperatures in the Nino 3
and 3.4 regions, before declaring an El Niño. The United States
Climate Prediction Center
Climate Prediction Center (CPC) and the International Research
Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) looks at the sea surface
temperatures in the Niño 3.4 region, the tropical Pacific atmosphere
and forecasts that NOAA's Oceanic Niño Index will equal or exceed
+0.5 °C for several seasons in a row. However, the Japan
Meteorological Agency declares that an
El Niño event has started when
the average 5 month sea surface temperature deviation for the NINO.3
region, is over 0.5 °C (0.90 °F) warmer for 6 consecutive
months or longer. The Peruvian government declares that a coastal
El Niño is under way, if the sea surface temperatures in the Niño 1
and 2 regions, equal or exceed +0.4 °C for at least 3 months.
There is no consensus on if climate change will have any influence on
the occurrence, strength or duration of
El Niño events, as research
El Niño events becoming stronger, longer, shorter and
A timeline of all the
El Niño episodes between 1900 and 2016.
El Niño events are thought to have been occurring for thousands of
years. For example, it is thought that
El Niño affected the Inca
Empire in modern-day Peru, who sacrificed humans in order to try and
prevent the rains.
It is thought that there have been at least 30
El Niño events since
1900, with the 1982-83, 1997–98 and 2014–16 events among the
strongest on record. Since 2000,
El Niño events have been
observed in 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07, 2009–10 and
Major ENSO events were recorded in the years 1790–93, 1828,
1876–78, 1891, 1925–26, 1972–73, 1982–83, 1997–98, and
2014–16.[verification needed][needs update]
Typically, this anomaly happens at irregular intervals of two to seven
years, and lasts nine months to two years. The average period
length is five years. When this warming occurs for seven to nine
months, it is classified as
El Niño "conditions"; when its duration
is longer, it is classified as an
El Niño "episode".
There is no consensus on whether climate change will have any
influence on the occurrence, strength or duration of
El Niño events,
as research supports
El Niño events becoming stronger, longer,
shorter and weaker.
El Niño episodes, a secondary peak in sea surface
temperature across the far eastern equatorial
Pacific Ocean sometimes
follows the initial peak.
Cultural history and prehistoric information
Average equatorial Pacific temperatures
ENSO conditions have occurred at two- to seven-year intervals for at
least the past 300 years, but most of them have been weak. Evidence is
also strong for
El Niño events during the early
Holocene epoch 10,000
El Niño may have led to the demise of the Moche and other
pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures. A recent study suggests a strong
El-Niño effect between 1789 and 1793 caused poor crop yields in
Europe, which in turn helped touch off the French Revolution. The
extreme weather produced by
El Niño in 1876–77 gave rise to the
most deadly famines of the 19th century. The 1876 famine alone in
northern China killed up to 13 million people.
An early recorded mention of the term "El Niño" to refer to climate
occurred in 1892, when Captain Camilo Carrillo told the geographical
society congress in
Lima that Peruvian sailors named the warm
north-flowing current "El Niño" because it was most noticeable around
Christmas. The phenomenon had long been of interest because of its
effects on the guano industry and other enterprises that depend on
biological productivity of the sea.
Charles Todd, in 1888, suggested droughts in
India and Australia
tended to occur at the same time;
Norman Lockyer noted the same in
El Niño connection with flooding was reported in 1894 by
Víctor Eguiguren (es) (1852–1919) and in 1895 by Federico
Alfonso Pezet (1859–1929). In 1924,
Gilbert Walker (for whom
Walker circulation is named) coined the term "Southern
Oscillation". He and others (including Norwegian-American
meteorologist Jacob Bjerknes) are generally credited with identifying
El Niño effect.
The major 1982–83
El Niño led to an upsurge of interest from the
scientific community. The period 1991–1995 was unusual in that El
Niños have rarely occurred in such rapid succession. An
El Niño event in 1998 caused an estimated 16% of
the world's reef systems to die. The event temporarily warmed air
temperature by 1.5 °C, compared to the usual increase of
0.25 °C associated with
El Niño events. Since then, mass
coral bleaching has become common worldwide, with all regions having
suffered "severe bleaching".
Map showing Niño3.4 and other index regions
It is thought that there are several different types of El Niño
events, with the canonical eastern Pacific and the Modoki central
Pacific types being the two that receive the most
attention. These different types of
El Niño events are
classified by where the tropical Pacific sea surface temperature (SST)
anomalies are the largest. For example, the strongest sea surface
temperature anomalies associated with the canonical eastern Pacific
event are located off the coast of South America. The strongest
anomalies associated with the Modoki central Pacific event are located
near the International Dateline. However, during the duration of a
single event, the area with the greatest sea surface temperature
anomalies can change.
The traditional Niño, also called Eastern Pacific (EP) El Niño,
involves temperature anomalies in the Eastern Pacific. However, in the
last two decades, nontraditional El Niños were observed, in which the
usual place of the temperature anomaly (Niño 1 and 2) is not
affected, but an anomaly arises in the central Pacific (Niño
3.4). The phenomenon is called Central Pacific (CP) El Niño,
El Niño (because the anomaly arises near the dateline), or
El Niño "Modoki" (Modoki is Japanese for "similar, but
The effects of the CP
El Niño are different from those of the
traditional EP El Niño—e.g., the recently discovered
El Niño leads
to more hurricanes more frequently making landfall in the
There is also a scientific debate on the very existence of this "new"
ENSO. Indeed, a number of studies dispute the reality of this
statistical distinction or its increasing occurrence, or both, either
arguing the reliable record is too short to detect such a
distinction, finding no distinction or trend using other
statistical approaches, or that other types should
be distinguished, such as standard and extreme ENSO.
The first recorded
El Niño that originated in the central Pacific and
moved toward the east was in 1986. Recent Central Pacific El
Niños happened in 1986–87, 1991–92, 1994–95, 2002–03,
2004–05 and 2009–10. Furthermore, there were "Modoki" events
in 1957–59, 1963–64, 1965–66, 1968–70, 1977–78 and
Effects on the global climate
El Nino affects the global climate and disrupts normal weather
patterns, which as a result can lead to intense storms in some places
and droughts in others.
Most tropical cyclones form on the side of the subtropical ridge
closer to the equator, then move poleward past the ridge axis before
recurving into the main belt of the Westerlies. Areas west of
Korea tend to experience much fewer September–November
tropical cyclone impacts during
El Niño and neutral years. During El
Niño years, the break in the subtropical ridge tends to lie near
130°E, which would favor the Japanese archipelago.
Within the Atlantic
Ocean vertical wind shear is increased, which
inhibits tropical cyclone genesis and intensification, by causing the
westerly winds in the atmosphere to be stronger. The atmosphere
over the Atlantic
Ocean can also be drier and more stable during El
Niño events, which can also inhibit tropical cyclone genesis and
intensification. Within the Eastern Pacific basin:
El Niño events
contribute to decreased easterly vertical wind shear and favours
above-normal hurricane activity. However, the impacts of the ENSO
state in this region can vary and are strongly influenced by
background climate patterns. The Western Pacific basin experiences
a change in the location of where tropical cyclones form during El
Niño events, without a major change in how many develop each
year. As a result of this change Micronesia is more likely to be
affected by several tropical cyclones, while China has a decreased
risk of being affected by several tropical cyclones.
A change in the location of where tropical cyclones form also occurs
within the Southern
Pacific Ocean between 135°E and 120°W, with
tropical cyclones more likely to occur within the Southern Pacific
basin than the Australian region. As a result of this change
tropical cyclones are 50% less likely to make landfall on Queensland,
while the risk of a tropical cyclone is elevated for island nations
like Niue, French Polynesia, Tonga,
Tuvalu and the Cook
Remote influence on tropical Atlantic Ocean
A study of climate records has shown that
El Niño events in the
equatorial Pacific are generally associated with a warm tropical North
Atlantic in the following spring and summer. About half of El
Niño events persist sufficiently into the spring months for the
Western Hemisphere Warm Pool
Western Hemisphere Warm Pool to become unusually large in summer.
Occasionally, El Niño's effect on the Atlantic Walker circulation
South America strengthens the easterly trade winds in the western
equatorial Atlantic region. As a result, an unusual cooling may occur
in the eastern equatorial Atlantic in spring and summer following El
Niño peaks in winter. Cases of El Niño-type events in both
oceans simultaneously have been linked to severe famines related to
the extended failure of monsoon rains.
Many ENSO linkages exist in the high southern latitudes around
El Niño conditions result in
high-pressure anomalies over the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas,
causing reduced sea ice and increased poleward heat fluxes in these
sectors, as well as the Ross Sea. The Weddell Sea, conversely, tends
to become colder with more sea ice during El Niño. The exact opposite
heating and atmospheric pressure anomalies occur during La Niña.
This pattern of variability is known as the Antarctic dipole mode,
although the Antarctic response to ENSO forcing is not ubiquitous.
El Niño events since 1950, show that impacts
El Niño events depend on what season it is.
However, while certain events and impacts are expected to occur during
events, it is not certain or guaranteed that they will occur. The
impacts that generally do occur during most
El Niño events include
below-average rainfall over Indonesia and northern South America,
while above average rainfall occurs in southeastern South America,
eastern equatorial Africa, and the southern United States.
Australia and the Southern Pacific
El Niño events, the shift in rainfall away from the Western
Pacific may mean that rainfall across Australia is reduced. Over
the southern part of the continent, warmer than average temperatures
can be recorded as weather systems are more mobile and fewer blocking
areas of high pressure occur. The onset of the Indo-Australian
Monsoon in tropical Australia is delayed by two to six weeks, which as
a consequence means that rainfall is reduced over the northern
tropics. The risk of a significant bushfire season in
south-eastern Australia is higher following an
El Niño event,
especially when it is combined with a positive
Indian Ocean Dipole
event. During an
El Niño event, New Zealand tends to experience
stronger or more frequent westerly winds during their summer, which
leads to an elevated risk of drier than normal conditions along the
east coast. There is more rain than usual though on New Zealand's
West Coast, because of the barrier effect of the North Island mountain
ranges and the Southern Alps.
Fiji generally experiences drier than normal conditions during an El
Niño, which can lead to drought becoming established over the
Islands. However, the main impacts on the island nation is felt
about a year after the event becomes established. Within the
Samoan Islands, below average rainfall and higher than normal
temperatures are recorded during
El Niño events, which can lead to
droughts and forest fires on the islands. Other impacts include a
decrease in the sea level, possibility of coral bleaching in the
marine environment and an increased risk of a tropical cyclone
In Africa, East Africa — including Kenya, Tanzania, and the
White Nile basin — experiences, in the long rains from March to
May, wetter-than-normal conditions. Conditions are also drier than
normal from December to February in south-central Africa, mainly in
Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Botswana.
As warm water spreads from the west Pacific and the
Indian Ocean to
the east Pacific, it takes the rain with it, causing extensive drought
in the western Pacific and rainfall in the normally dry eastern
Pacific. Singapore experienced the driest February in 2014 since
records began in 1869, with only 6.3 mm of rain falling in the
month and temperatures hitting as high as 35 °C on 26 February.
The years 1968 and 2005 had the next driest Februaries, when
8.4 mm of rain fell. 
El Niño's effects on
Europe are controversial, complex and difficult
to analyse, as it is one of several factors that influence the weather
over the continent and other factors can overwhelm the signal.
Regional impacts of warm ENSO episodes (El Niño)
See also: Effects of the
El Niño–Southern Oscillation
El Niño–Southern Oscillation in the United
Over North America, the main temperature and precipitation impacts of
El Niño, generally occur in the six months between October and
March. In particular the majority of Canada generally has a
milder than normal winters and cold fronts springs, with the exception
of eastern Canada where no significant impacts occur. Within the
United States, the impacts generally observed during the six-month
period include; wetter-than-average conditions along the Gulf Coast
Texas and Florida, while drier conditions are observed in
Hawaii, the Ohio Valley,
Pacific Northwest and the Rocky
Mountains. Over California and the South-Western United States,
there is a weak relationship between El Nino and above-average
precipitation, as it strongly depends on the strength of the El Niño
event amongst other factors.
The synoptic condition for the
Tehuantepecer is associated with
high-pressure system forming in Sierra Madre of Mexico in the wake of
an advancing cold front, which causes winds to accelerate through the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Tehuantepecers primarily occur during the cold
season months for the region in the wake of cold fronts, between
October and February, with a summer maximum in July caused by the
westward extension of the Azores High. Wind magnitude is greater
El Niño years than during
La Niña years, due to the more
frequent cold frontal incursions during
El Niño winters. Its
effects can last from a few hours to six days.
Because El Niño's warm pool feeds thunderstorms above, it creates
increased rainfall across the east-central and eastern Pacific Ocean,
including several portions of the South American west coast. The
El Niño in
South America are direct and stronger than in
North America. An
El Niño is associated with warm and very wet
weather months in April–October along the coasts of northern Peru
and Ecuador, causing major flooding whenever the event is strong or
extreme. The effects during the months of February, March, and
April may become critical along the west coast of South America, El
Niño reduces the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that sustains
large fish populations, which in turn sustain abundant sea birds,
whose droppings support the fertilizer industry. The reduction in
upwelling leads to fish kills off the shore of Peru.
The local fishing industry along the affected coastline can suffer
El Niño events. The world's largest fishery
collapsed due to overfishing during the 1972
El Niño Peruvian
anchoveta reduction. During the 1982–83 event, jack mackerel and
anchoveta populations were reduced, scallops increased in warmer
water, but hake followed cooler water down the continental slope,
while shrimp and sardines moved southward, so some catches decreased
while others increased. Horse mackerel have increased in the
region during warm events. Shifting locations and types of fish due to
changing conditions provide challenges for fishing industries.
Peruvian sardines have moved during
El Niño events to Chilean areas.
Other conditions provide further complications, such as the government
Chile in 1991 creating restrictions on the fishing areas for
self-employed fishermen and industrial fleets.
The ENSO variability may contribute to the great success of small,
fast-growing species along the Peruvian coast, as periods of low
population removes predators in the area. Similar effects benefit
migratory birds that travel each spring from predator-rich tropical
areas to distant winter-stressed nesting areas.
Brazil and northern
Argentina also experience wetter than
normal conditions, but mainly during the spring and early summer.
Chile receives a mild winter with large rainfall, and the
Altiplano is sometimes exposed to unusual winter
snowfall events. Drier and hotter weather occurs in parts of the
Amazon River Basin, Colombia, and Central America.
Effects on humanity
El Niño has the most direct impacts on life in the equatorial
Pacific, its effects propagate north and south along the coast of the
Americas, affecting marine life all around the Pacific. Changes in
chlorophyll-a concentrations are visible in this animation, which
compares phytoplankton in January and July 1998. Since then,
scientists have improved both the collection and presentation of
El Niño conditions last for many months, extensive ocean warming
and the reduction in easterly trade winds limits upwelling of cold
nutrient-rich deep water, and its economic effect on local fishing for
an international market can be serious.
El Niño can affect commodity prices and the
macroeconomy of different countries. It can constrain the supply of
rain-driven agricultural commodities; reduce agricultural output,
construction, and services activities; create food-price and
generalised inflation; and may trigger social unrest in
commodity-dependent poor countries that primarily rely on imported
food. A University of Cambridge Working Paper shows that while
Australia, Chile, Indonesia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South
Africa face a short-lived fall in economic activity in response to an
El Niño shock, other countries may actually benefit from an El Niño
weather shock (either directly or indirectly through positive
spillovers from major trading partners), for instance, Argentina,
Canada, Mexico and the United States. Furthermore, most countries
experience short-run inflationary pressures following an El Niño
shock, while global energy and non-fuel commodity prices increase.
The IMF estimates a significant
El Niño can boost the GDP of the
United States by about 0.5% (due largely to lower heating bills) and
reduce the GDP of Indonesia by about 1.0%.
Health and social effects
Extreme weather conditions related to the
El Niño cycle correlate
with changes in the incidence of epidemic diseases. For example, the
El Niño cycle is associated with increased risks of some of the
diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria, dengue, and Rift
Valley fever. Cycles of malaria in India, Venezuela, Brazil, and
Colombia have now been linked to El Niño. Outbreaks of another
mosquito-transmitted disease, Australian encephalitis (Murray Valley
encephalitis—MVE), occur in temperate south-east Australia after
heavy rainfall and flooding, which are associated with La Niña
events. A severe outbreak of
Rift Valley fever
Rift Valley fever occurred after extreme
rainfall in north-eastern
Kenya and southern Somalia during the
1997–98 El Niño.
ENSO conditions have also been related to
Kawasaki disease incidence
Japan and the west coast of the United States, via the linkage
to tropospheric winds across the north Pacific Ocean.
ENSO may be linked to civil conflicts. Scientists at The Earth
Institute of Columbia University, having analyzed data from 1950 to
2004, suggest ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts
since 1950, with the risk of annual civil conflict doubling from 3% to
6% in countries affected by ENSO during
El Niño years relative to La
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2 : 72–110. [in Spanish] From p. 84: "Los marinos paiteños que
navegan frecuentemente cerca de la costa y en embarcaciones pequeñas,
ya al norte ó al sur de Paita, conocen esta corriente y la denominan
corriente del Niño, sin duda porque ella se hace mas visible y
palpable después de la Pascua de Navidad." (The sailors [from the
city of] Paita who sail often near the coast and in small boats, to
the north or the south of Paita, know this current and call it "the
current of the Boy [el Niño]", undoubtedly because it becomes more
visible and palpable after the
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presenta la corriente de Niño, es la misma de las lluvias en aquella
región." (Finally, the period in which the
El Niño current is
present is the same as that of the rains in that region [i.e., the
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