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18. El Niño & La Niña Predictions - Nifty 50

Drought-damaged earth

Eighteen years ago, The world's climate went haywire. The Indian monsoon failed. Fields in Australia burned in relentless heat and drought.

Crops withered in fertile parts of South America, while that continent's coastal desert bloomed unexpectedly. California got twice its normal winter rainfall and 18-foot waves swallowed beachfront houses.

NSF played a major role in supporting the basic research that led to the Tropical Oceans Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program, which helped answer the questions of how fundamental physical processes that couple or connect the tropical Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere work and how to make those processes predictable.

Better predictions

The main benefit, not only to those living in the U.S.A., but to anyone around the world, is now more accurate and useful predictions of El Niño/La Niña weather cycles can be conducted up to two to three seasons, or about nine months in advance.

Predictions of El Niño (the warming) and La Niña (the cooling) of tropical Pacific Ocean waters are now providing extra months of preparation, helping to lessen economic and human losses that often result from these events.

In the early 1980s, meteorologists and oceanographers,funded by NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences, set out to test the hypothesis that El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which includes both El Niño and La Niña phases, can be predicted.

These scientists organized under the new program, TOGA, the first of the U.S. Global Change initiatives. TOGA was a multiagency effort involving NSF, NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and ONR.

NSF's role began before TOGA, with support for the basic research that led to the hypothesis that although weather cannot be predicted beyond two weeks in advance, certain features of the Earth's climate can be predicted with lead time of seasons and greater.

Original publication date: April 2000

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