Focus Areas E2- Oceanography

What is El Niño?

El Niño is the widespread warming of the central and eastern Pacific over a period of several months, which often leads to major shifts in weather patterns across the Pacific.  

El Niño has been a feature of the Earth’s climate for thousands of years, but only in recent decades have scientists begun to study it and use it as a tool in forecasting the weather we experience.

During El Niño episodes, northern and eastern Australia usually experiences dryer than normal conditions. There is also an increased risk of drought.  On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in countries like Ecuador, Peru and USA, El Niño conditions tend to result in weather that is wetter than normal with an increased risk of storms and floods.

An opposite pattern in the weather is observed at times when the sea surface temperatures of the central to eastern Pacific Ocean fall below normal for a significant period of time. This opposite pattern of sea temperatures and weather is called a ‘La Niña’. During a strong La Niña, Eastern Australia tends to receive more rain than normal while Peru tends to be dryer than usual. (See La Nina and Floods for more detail).

These words ‘El Niño’ and ‘La Nina’ are Spanish: ‘El Niño’ means ‘the boy-child’ and refers to the Christ child; whereas ‘La Nina’ means ‘the girl-child’.  Originally, the term ‘El Niño’ was used by Peruvian fishermen. They used the term to describe a warm ocean current which sometimes occurs around Christmas time along the coast of South America. When this happens the catch of fish is reduced and the fishermen struggle to make a living.

Students learn about El Niño and La Niña
Students learn to identify features of El Niño and La Niña