Evolution of Pacific Ocean Temperatures

Narration: Robin Kovach


An El Nino is one of the most extreme short-term climate change events on the planet. It can influence weather patterns, alter the path of storms, cause severe floods, and even disrupt marine ecosystems. But by feeding satellite and other types of data into computer models, we can predict when an El Nino is coming and even see the evolution of its unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific. Over a period of months, pools of warm water migrate from the western Pacific to the coast of South America. The warm water travels along the equator, covering a distance roughly one-third the circumference of the Earth. If we look below the surface, we see this water forms a thick layer reaching depths of up to 1,000 feet. By December, the water starts to pile up along the coast of South America, which has potentially serious consequences for local fisheries. In 1998, the arrival of El Nino's warm waters off the coast of Peru triggered a sharp decline in marine plant life, called phytoplankton. These tiny organisms make up the base of the marine food web. As a result, fish catch that season dwindled, causing millions of dollars in losses to the fishing industry. Even though this year's El Nino is the strongest on record, ocean temperatures off the coast of South America are actually colder than they were in 1998. Which is good for phytoplankton and for fisheries. Our latest models show temperatures in the Pacific are cooling, suggesting we'll see a transition back to more normal conditions in summer. Music