Watching for El Niño

courtesy Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

HOUSTON – Never mind the models forecasting an El Niño, pretty clearly those warm Pacific waters are in place and will only get warmer as we move through the summer. Take a look at this Sea Surface Temperatures Anomaly map, which means that it shows how much hotter the ocean waters are than normal. Notice the red areas around South America.


Of course, it doesn’t take much to see that almost ALL of the world’s oceans are warmer than normal. And warmer water in the Atlantic and Gulf won’t help with hurricane season since warm water is what fuels those storms.

Interestingly, we’ve been in a La Niña pattern the past three years--a rare “triple dip” for those cooler than normal waters. But despite those three years we still saw our planet warming suggesting that “cooler waters” is definitely a relative term.

A new article out of Australia notes the increased warming around that continent and the observations are noteworthy. First, what’s with the all the water being warmer? Why not concentrate on the air? Well, water can hold huge amounts more heat than air. Think of it this way -- you pour a hot cup of coffee and it takes a while for that coffee to cool down. It’s a great heat holder! But you get in your hot car and the air-conditioning cold air will take over the hot air pretty quickly.

Generally, just the top few meters of the ocean store as much heat as Earth’s entire atmosphere. Heat gets into the ocean at the surface where sunlight warms water directly as well as warm winds transferring heat. Over time, this heat is mixed with the rest of the ocean. Most of the extra heat is going into the top 1.2 miles of seawater, but there’s warming all down the water column. Look at this chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing how much ocean warming has occurred since the mid 90s:


Simply put, the ocean covers 70% of the Earth and has absorbed 90% of the heat! Why does this matter? According to NOAA: “The effects of ocean warming include sea level rise due to thermal expansion, coral bleaching, accelerated melting of Earth’s major ice sheets, intensified hurricanes*, and changes in ocean health and biochemistry.”

You may have noticed this chart expresses the heat energy increase in zettajoules. What’s that? Well, as an example of how much energy this is, the Australian study suggests that the Earth system trapped roughly 380 zettajoules of extra heat from 1971-2020, the equivalent of 25 billion nuclear bombs. B as in billion.

I encourage you to have a look at the Earthsky El Niño article as well as the NOAA warming report. Both are easy to understand and really explain why curbing the warming air (which is then stored into the ocean and warming that up) is so important!

Have a great weekend and we’ll be watching and tracking those storms later tonight!


Email me and follow me on Facebook!

About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with four decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.