A Still-Growing El Niño Set to Bear Down on US

JPL press release

The current strong El Niño brewing in the Pacific Ocean shows no signs of waning, as seen in the latest satellite image from the U.S./European Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason-2 mission.

El Nino 2015
The latest satellite image of Pacific sea surface heights compared with 1997. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
El Niño 2015 has already created weather chaos around the world. Over the next few months, forecasters expect the United States to feel its impacts as well.

The latest Jason-2 image bears a striking resemblance to one from December 1997, by Jason-2’s predecessor, the NASA/Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) Topex/Poseidon mission, during the last large El Niño event. Both reflect the classic pattern of a fully developed El Niño. The images can be viewed at: http://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/elnino2015/index.html

The images show nearly identical, unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the central and eastern Pacific: the signature of a big and powerful El Niño. Higher-than-normal sea surface heights are an indication that a thick layer of warm water is present.

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The Most Reviled of Scientific Instruments

Scientific instruments have a habit of presenting us with uncomfortable truths. Galileo’s telescopes showed that our solar system did not conform to the prevailing teachings of the day. The great particle accelerators show a complexity underlying reality that defies a simple explanation of the universe. Likewise an almost forgotten instrument sitting atop a volcano has shown that humans have altered our world in very damaging ways.

NOAA Mauna Loa Climate Observatory
The NOAA Mauna Loa Climate Lab in the light of dawn
I had driven to the top of Mauna Loa for a session of Geminid meteor watching and photography, joining Steve, a local photographer and friend for a cold, beautiful morning atop the mountain. As we were about to leave another friend drove past. Ben used to work with me at Keck and now tends the solar observatory adjacent to the NOAA climate laboratory. Looking at the sky and the drizzling fog that had rolled in with the dawn he noted that it would be a while before he could open the telescope. Instead he offered us a tour.

It was in the main building that we stopped to look at a little instrument parked rather oddly in the hall. Not much, a simple box with a few aluminum tubes and a bit of circuitry and wiring. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a piece of scientific history. Here was the Scripps Carbon Dioxide Analyzer that has provided the data that has changed our relationship with our planet.

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White Mountian

A great deal of mythology swirls about our mountain. Some of it may be true, much is probably not as wishful thinking and reality collide on the summit. The current debates have moved every little detail into the light.

Mauna Kea White
Mauna Kea with a fresh covering of snow and ice
One of the claims I have heard repeated a few times recently is that in the past Mauna Kea always had snow, even in summer, making the name “White Mountain” very applicable.

I had my doubts about this. Whenever these questions arise it is important to check the records. Fortunately this has already been completed for us… Norbert Schorghofer, Elianna Kantar, and M. Puakea Nogelmeier at the University of Hawaii combed through the historical records looking for observations of the presence of snow atop Mauna Kea. What they found is that there were any number of records indicating the lack of snow on the mountain.

Follow the link and read the paper, it is a fascinating view into the past of Mauna Kea. Included are excerpts from ships logs and diaries of early visitors to the islands. At the end is a convenient timeline of the accounts covering the first century of written records and a set of three conclusions drawn from this information. The author’s conclusion is clear, Mauna Kea has not featured permanent snow cover any time in the last few centuries.

There was a time when the mountain featured permanent snow and ice fields. During the last ice age, around 12,000-11,000 years ago, there was permanent ice and active glaciers in the summit region. Along the access road there are textbook glacial features to be seen, glacial polish and moraines. This was gone before humans arrived in the islands. What we see today was probably much as it was over the past few centuries, as borne out in the records of the first European voyagers to make it to the islands. Snow may have been more common, but there were certainly periods when no snow was to be seen atop the summit of Mauna Kea.

These historical accounts date from long before human activities had begun dumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We do face an uncertain climate future, warming temperatures may reduce snowfall. The opposite may also be possible, warmer sea surface temperatures may create more precipitation at the summit with heavier snowfall events possible.