El Nino Gets Busy

Jonathan Strickland

Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock

I think I was in middle school the first time I heard of the term "El Nino." For a long time, I wasn't really sure what it meant. I knew it had something to do with weather patterns in the Pacific but beyond that it was a mystery. Eventually, I learned that it referred to an oscillating cycle of temperature changes in the equatorial Pacific region. Specifically, El Nino is a period of warmer-than-normal temperatures. It's counterpart, La Nina, marks lower-than-normal temperatures. And it looks like El Nino is getting stronger.

A collaborative team of researchers from the University of Hawaii, the University of New South Wales and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory have published a paper in Climate of the Past. The paper lays out a disturbing trend -- it appears the El Nino effect has grown stronger over the last few decades. The team researched the trends going back 600 years by looking at various clues such as coral formations and tree rings.

There are some challenges that crop up when you compare data gathered from biological indicators with more recent information produced by sensors and instrumentation. You can't be nearly as precise without the hard data. But the researchers say that their findings indicate that as global temperatures have increased, so have El Nino's effects.

The researchers point out that they can't explain this relationship. El Nino is still largely mysterious to us -- less so than it was to me in middle school but we still don't understand it fully. Maybe we can look to the late, great Chris Farley for some answers.