NASA predicts a 'return to normal' in ENSO conditions


After Strong El Niño Winter, NASA Model Sees Return to Normal

Not too hot, not too cold – instead, water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean should be just around normal for the rest of 2016, according to forecasts from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, or GMAO. With these neutral conditions, scientists with the modeling center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center say there is unlikely to be a La Niña event in late 2016.

Last winter saw an extremely strong El Niño event, in which warmer-than-normal water sloshed toward the eastern Pacific Ocean. Historically, some of the larger El Niño events are followed by a La Niña event, in which deep, colder-than-normal water surfaces in the eastern Pacific Ocean, off the coast of South America.

color map of oval globe on
Sea surface temperature patterns of the 2015 El Niño in the Pacific Ocean unfolded differently than those seen in the 1997-1998 El Niño.
Credits: NASA

“We are consistently predicting a more neutral state, with no La Niña or El Niño later this year,” said Steven Pawson, chief of the GMAO. “Our September forecast continues to show the neutral conditions that have been predicted since the spring.”

As part of a research and development project, GMAO contributes experimental seasonal forecasts each month to the North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) and other centers. MME produces a forecast by combining the individual forecasts of a number of participating institutions, which helps to reduce the uncertainty involved in forecasting events nine to twelve months in advance. The NMME prediction system delivers forecasts based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operational schedule and is used by many operational forecasters in predicting El Niño and La Niña events.

For GMAO, the seasonal forecasts are one way to use NASA satellite data to improve near-term climate predictions of the Earth system.

“We’re really trying to bring as much NASA observational data as possible into these systems,” Pawson said.

The scientists with GMAO feed a range of NASA satellite data and other information into the seasonal forecast model to predict if an El Niño or La Niña event will occur in the nine months – information on the aerosols and ozone in the atmosphere, sea ice, winds, sea surface heights and temperatures, and more. The models are run on supercomputers at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation – 9 terabytes of data each month.

For much of this spring and summer, however, the Goddard group’s forecast of neutral conditions looked like an outlier. Most other forecasts originally called for a La Niña event, but then shifted to more neutral outlooks in August. But the GMAO forecasts produced in January 2016, which look nine months ahead, saw the Pacific Ocean reverting to normal temperatures after last year’s El Niño, and even getting a little colder than normal. Still, the water wouldn’t get cold enough to be considered a La Niña, according to the GMAO forecasts.

It’s not the first time in recent memory that GMAO was an outlier. “The big El Niño that peaked in November 2015, we actually began forecasting that back in March, and our forecast was in excellent agreement with the real event,” said Robin Kovach, a research scientist at GMAO. While the strength of the 2015-2016 El Niño predicted by the model seemed at first to be excessive, it was borne out in subsequent observations.

The GMAO models aren’t always right, though, Kovach said. In 2014 the group forecast a large El Niño that didn’t materialize.

“There’s a fair degree of uncertainty when you start predicting for nine months ahead,” Pawson said. But the group is constantly upgrading their systems, and is currently working to improve the resolution and bring in new types of satellite observations, such as soil moisture information from the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, which launched in 2015.

GMAO scientists are also investigating how to incorporate observations of ocean color into the seasonal forecast model. Shades of green can tell researchers about how much phytoplankton is in a region, which in turn can provide information about fish populations.

“So if there’s another big El Niño in five years or so, we could be able to do online predictions of phytoplankton,” he said, “and help fishermen predict where fish might be.”

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55 thoughts on “NASA predicts a 'return to normal' in ENSO conditions

  1. Must be all that methane…. about to explode & fry us all to crisps,
    that should melt the ice caps & the resulting flood will put out the fires,
    & drown any one who escaped the inferno.
    Will mankind survive ???
    Will Good God Gore get his feet wet ??
    To find out, join us next week for another terror filled episode of ‘The end is Nigh’

  2. The 30 day SOI has turned to now be +10. A bit early to say if this will become a La Nina but there is signs of flooding in parts of Queensland which comes with continuous +10 SOI. NASA (GISS) can not be trusted with any prediction or with published data information. SOI data has a very long history, is independent obtained and checked by different institutions. (I trust the Qld Long paddock site but not BOM)

  3. The key sentences in the article: “The GMAO models aren’t always right, though, Kovach said. In 2014 the group forecast a large El Niño that didn’t materialize.”
    So, of the last two seasonal forecasts (2014/15 and 2015/16), they got one right.

  4. Does anyone remember the SST conditions following the ’98 ENSO? For me, on the west coast of the US, this is good news since warm/normal should bring rain while a La Nina usually doesn’t.

  5. I don’t see a return to normal in the temperature map, I see a return to below normal, shouldn’t the temperature map be consistent with the narrative or is that too much to expect? I’m just a regular guy so I’m uncomfortable questioning authority … hold on I have to answer a knock at my door I’ll be right back ….

  6. I suppose it hasn’t occurred to any of these geniuses that ‘normal’ is not a steady-state nor even a semi-steady state, but rather an multi-state system like a simple multivibrator, driven by opposing amplifiers with mutual feedbacks.
    But then they are all ‘experienced’ in contrived computer models and not in real interacting systems or even advanced mathematics.

    • GMAO=Global Modeling and Assimilation Office
      All of those words have, in recent years, acquired sinister connotations of course, but in the case of ‘assimilation’ it is a rather innocent reference to a very useful and generic strategy of modeling networks called data assimilation.
      It is used in many fields of science, but probably most widely used in meteorology. The basic idea is that the output of a modeling output (“weather forecast”) together with current observations are automatically ‘assimilated’ as the input to the next stage of the forecast.
      So, it’s much like a Bayesian network of random variables, where prior probabilities form the basis for predicting posterior probabilities, which in turn become priors for the next stage.

  7. These ENSO forecast models have notorious problem to make accurate short term predictions before the equinoxes. My ANN model which is based on combinations on strong tidal gravitational forcing and variations in solar electromagnetic activity indicate that a deeper La Niña is coming with its deepest point around February or so next year. Usually changes in these ENSO models catches new changes first after one and a half week to two weeks after the latest Perigee. Next upcoming Perigee is on the 18th of September. So let’s see what’s happening in a few weeks.
    This is my current forecast.

  8. I was wondering earlier this year whether we would have the classic La Nina rebound like we saw around 2000-01, after the 97-98 Super El Nino? If there isn’t a rebound, then the Western Pacific would not be “re-charging”, which would mean continued ENSO neutral conditions for perhaps 2-3 year. Just a thought.

  9. I have long suspected that the climate-change activists experience a bit of Schadenfreudewhen they think they see their direst predictions coming true.
    But, from a devil’s-advocate POV, would it not be better for them to predict a cool Niña, which is a fairly normal event after a Niño?
    Then they can claim “it’s warmer/worse than we thought!” if La Niña fails to materialize, to help vindicate their dire propensities.

    • “better for them to predict a cool Niña”
      You would think so, but this would oppose the narrative, part of which is that CAGW could result in a persistent El Nino state. They fail to understand that sum of periodic climate fluctuations between warm and cold, like ENSO and SOI cycles, comprise an oscillatory steady state centered on a mean. If the climate isn’t fluctuating around its mean, its broken, but then again breaking the laws of physics is impossible unless you can come up with a new law to explain the breakage. Climate science is incapable of coming up with new laws when they can’t even get the existing ones right.

      • ‘You would think so, but this would oppose the narrative’
        Agreed – they’re thinking very short-term right at the moment – worry about damage control when their predictions don’t pan out… AFTER they’ve gotten the appropriate seat-filler in the White House.

    • I think you (and many others here) are forgetting that the definition of ENSO values such as for the Nino 3.4 region are anomalies referenced to a moving 30 year average for each month (this is updated every 5 years). Hence the current weak ‘La Nina’ conditions (referenced to the average for each month from 1986 to 2015) are themselves at temperatures in the same region around 0.2 degrees above the baseline used for the ‘super’ El Nino and strong following La Nina in 1998/99. Hence, even if this does develop into a La Nina, it will be a ‘warm’ La Nina.

      • But, as Bob Tisdale writes:
        “La Nina events are a vital portion of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation coupled ocean-atmosphere process. La Nina events recharge the heat released from the tropical Pacific during the El Nino.”
        La Ninas do not necessarily have the same direct impact on global temperatures as El Ninos. But, La Nina events help in the development of future El Ninos. Bob continues:
        “…Note that most La Nina events do not fully recharge the heat released by the El Nino events. From 1976 to 1994, tropical Pacific Ocean Heat Content dropped almost continuously, with occasional major dips and rebounds as an El Nino discharged heat and the subsequent La Nina partially recharged it. Then, the 1995/96 La Nina event, one that was not particularly strong, replaced all of the heat that had been released (plus some) over that 18-year stretch.”
        If this cycle’s La Nina is “warm” or weak compared to previous ENSO cycles, then it should point to more ENSO neutral conditions versus the classic moderate to strong El Nino events we’ve seen the last 25 years.
        The next 3-5 years should be interesting.

  10. Sorry to be picky Anthony but “Last winter” ?? If that was winter I am not looking forward to summer here 🙂

  11. Can anyone say what is the historic tendency of el Nino Modokis (link this one) to have a following La Nina? I would guess that this is less common than after “normal” el Ninos centered at the east Pacific. Does anyone have data on this?

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