El Niño rides again


  • Elaine Friebele


Another weather-disrupting El Niño may be brewing in the Pacific Ocean, according to ocean measurements taken by NASA instruments on two orbiting satellites. Sea-surface height measurements taken by the radar altimeter on board the joint U.S.-French TOPEX/Poseidon satellite and wind data collected by the NASA scatterometer on Japan's Advanced Earth Observing Satellite (ADEOS) have been used together for the first time to predict changing weather conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

El Niño occurs when steady westward blowing trade winds weaken and reverse direction, moving the mass of warm water near Australia eastward to the coast of South America. The displacement of the warm water mass alters the atmospheric jet stream and weather patterns around the world. The TOPEX/Poseidon satellite uses an altimeter to bounce radar signals off the ocean's surface to make precise measurements of the distance between the satellite and sea surface. Researchers then map the barely perceptible hills and valleys of the sea surface by combining these data with measurements pinpointing the satellite's exact location in space.