The ongoing El Niño of 2015-2016 is a historically strong event, the likes of which is only seen once or twice during a scientific career. Not wanting to let this opportunity pass by, scientists from NOAA and NASA have embarked on an unprecedented and exciting mission to observe this El Niño like no other El Niño has been observed before! From January to March 2016, scientists have been collecting data in a notoriously data-sparse region of the Pacific via Gulfstream jets, high-tech unmanned aircraft, ship cruises, weather balloon launches, and instruments dropped right out of aircraft. This effort is known as the El Niño Rapid Response campaign.
|Tracks of all 23 research flights with the NOAA Gulfstream-IV aircraft out of Honolulu, Hawaii during the El Niño Rapid Response campaign from January - March 2016. Research flights were meant to circle massive thunderstorm systems in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. An example GOES satellite image from February 25, 2016 is shown to give an example of the location and scale of the thunderstorms. Conditions varied daily. NOAA Climate.gov image based off image courtsey of Matt Newmann (CU/CIRES and NOAA/ESRL) and NASA.|
Why study this El Niño? As discussed in detail in previous blog entries, one significant way El Niño impacts the global climate is through changes in atmospheric wave forcing and large-scale circulations like the Walker Circulation and Hadley Circulation, which then shift the pathways taken by storms around the world. During the 1997-1998 El Niño, the North Pacific stormtrack was shifted southeastward, directing moisture-carrying storms toward California. This caused 13.68 inches of rain to fall in downtown Los Angeles in 1998—the wettest February since records began 130 years before.
There was, therefore, significant concern about the impact of the next big El Niño on California precipitation. By standard measures, the 2015-2016 El Niño has been tied with 1997-98 as the warmest El Niño in the instrumental record. However, only 0.79 inches of rainfall fell during February 2016 in downtown Los Angeles. To date, March 2016 rainfall totals are also significantly below average.
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