Two agencies’ survey via land, sea and air will hopefully help improve weather forecasts and models that predict the longer-term impact of climate change
March 5,2016 — America’s two leading climate science agencies are conducting an unprecedented survey via land, sea and air to investigate the current El Niño event and better understand its impact on weather systems that have brought both parched and soaking conditions to North America.
The project, which will conclude in March, will deploy resources from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) and Nasa to analyze one of the strongest El Niños on record. El Niño is a periodic phenomenon in which parts of the eastern Pacific warm, causing a ripple effect for weather around the world.
Noaa’s Gulfstream IV research plane and its ship Ronald H Brown will collect data from the vast stretch of the Pacific ocean where El Niño climate events are spawned. Nasa will deploy its Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, which is able to fly at 65,000ft for 30 hours at a time.
It is hoped that instruments dropped from aircraft, supported by weather balloons, will help improve weather forecasts and models that predict the longer-term impact of climate change. The scientists will coordinate with researchers based in Honolulu and the Pacific island of Kiribati, around 1,340 miles south of Hawaii.
“This has never been done with a major El Niño,” said Randall Dole, a senior scientist at Noaa’s Earth Sciences Research Lab.
“A field campaign ordinarily takes years to plan and execute. But we recognized what an important opportunity we had and everyone worked hard to pull this mission together.”
Noaa said it was conducting the rapid assessment due to heightened interest over El Niño’s impact upon California, which is in the midst of a historic four-year drought. El Niño brought a slew of rain to California in December and January, prompting warnings to residents not to let their guard down in an unprecedented water conservation push.
California’s Folsom Lake, which was nearly depleted by the drought, is nearing capacity; Lake Tahoe has been replenished by around 28bn gallons of water since December.
The precipitation has proved a boon for ski resort operators, with the water content of Sierra Nevada’s snowpack standing at 130% of normal for this time of year. Californians have also marveled at strange sightings of tropical fish, with several warm-water sea snakes washing up on the state’s beaches in recent months.
Felicia Marcus, chair of California’s state water resources control board, said: “We are hopeful that we are turning the corner on this drought.”
However, 64% of the state remains in extreme drought conditions, with 11 of its 12 largest water reservoirs below historical capacity averages.
While California has received some welcome rain, other parts of the US have experienced exceptionally dry and mild conditions. According to Noaa, only 5.7% of the Great Lakes’ surface was covered by ice as of 3 February, a huge drop on 2015, when 50% of the lakes’ surface was frozen.
The impact of El Niño has perhaps been most pernicious in Africa, with Zimbabwe declaring a state of emergency this week over a drought that has ravaged much of the south of the continent. An estimated 26% of Zimbabwe’s population, around 2.4 million, are now considered food insecurity due to dying cattle and failed crops.