Earth  ID: 4544

2015-2016 El Niño: Daily Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly and Ocean Currents

El Niño is a recurring climate pattern characterized by warmer than usual ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. This 3-D visualization tracks the changes in ocean temperatures and currents, respectively, throughout the life cycle of the 2015-2016 El Niño event, chronicling its inception in early 2015 to its dissipation by April 2016.
Blue regions represent colder temperatures and red regions warmer temperatures when compared with normal conditions.

Under normal conditions, equatorial trade winds in the Pacific Ocean blow from the east to the west, causing warm water to pile up in the Western Pacific, while also causing an upwelling- the rise of deep, cool water to the surface- in the Equatorial Pacific. During an El Niño, trade winds weaken or, as with this latest event, sometimes reverse course and blow from west to east. As a result, the warm surface water sloshes east along the equator from the Western Pacific and temporarily predominates in the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean. At that time, cooler water slowly migrates westward just off the equator in the Western Pacific.

The first visualization shows the 2015-2016 El Niño through changes in sea surface temperature as warmer water moves east across the Pacific Ocean.The Eastern Pacific Ocean undergoes the most warming from July 2015 to January 2016. In the west, just to the north of the equator, cooler waters hit the western boundary and reflect along the equator and then head east starting in February 2016. Just as the warming waves traveled east earlier in the video, these cool waters make their way to the central Pacific, terminating the warming event there.

Hand-in-hand with an El Niño's changing sea surface temperatures are the wind-driven ocean currents that move the waters along the equator across the Pacific Ocean. The second visualization depicts these currents, which here comprise the ocean's surface to a depth of 225 meters: Yellow arrows illustrate eastward currents and white arrows are westward currents. The El Niño-inducing westerlies- winds coming from the west that blow east- causing eastward currents to occur in pulses.

These visualizations are derived from NASA Goddard's Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, using Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications(MERRA) dataset, which comprises an optimal combination of observations and ocean and atmospheric models. For more information, see

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Visualization Credits

Lori Perkins (NASA/GSFC): Lead Data Visualizer
Robin Kovach (Science Systems and Applications Inc. (SSAI)): Lead Scientist
Steven Pawson (NASA/GSFC): Lead Scientist
Matthew R. Radcliff (USRA): Lead Producer
Samson K. Reiny (Wyle Information Systems): Lead Writer
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
The GEOS-5 data used in this study/project have been provided by the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office (GMAO) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center through the online data portal in the NASA Center for Climate Simulation

GMAO MERRA Ocean Currents

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Data Used:
GMAO MERRA Volumetric Ocean Currents
GMAO SST Anomaly 1/1/2015-4/30/2016
Note: While we identify the data sets used in these visualizations, we do not store any further details nor the data sets themselves on our site.

This item is part of this series:
El Niño and La Niña

SVS >> Computer Model
SVS >> El Nino
SVS >> Pacific
DLESE >> Physical oceanography
SVS >> Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly
SVS >> Simulation
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Oceans >> Ocean Circulation >> Ocean Currents
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Oceans >> Ocean Temperature >> Sea Surface Temperature
SVS >> Hyperwall
NASA Science >> Earth
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Climate Indicators >> Atmospheric/ocean Indicators >> Ocean Upwelling/downwelling

GCMD keywords can be found on the Internet with the following citation: Olsen, L.M., G. Major, K. Shein, J. Scialdone, S. Ritz, T. Stevens, M. Morahan, A. Aleman, R. Vogel, S. Leicester, H. Weir, M. Meaux, S. Grebas, C.Solomon, M. Holland, T. Northcutt, R. A. Restrepo, R. Bilodeau, 2013. NASA/Global Change Master Directory (GCMD) Earth Science Keywords. Version