Watch 2015 and 1997 El Niños build, side by side

New NCAR animation compares sea surface temperatures

September 3, 2015 | The El Niño brewing in the tropical Pacific is on track to become one of the strongest such events in recorded history and may even warm its way past the historic 1997-98 El Niño.

While it's too early to say if the current El Niño will live up to the hype, this new NCAR visualization comparing sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific in 1997 to those in 2015 gives a revealing glimpse into the similarities, and differences, between the two events. Sea surface temperatures are key to gauging the strength of an El Niño, which is marked by warmer-than-average waters.

Even if this year's El Niño goes on to take the title for strongest recorded event, there's no guarantee that the impacts on weather around the world will be the same as they were in 1997-98. Like snowflakes, each El Niño is unique. Still, experts are pondering whether a strong El Niño might ease California's unrelenting drought, cause heatwaves in Australia, cut coffee production in Uganda, and impact the food supply for Peruvian vicuñas.

This video animation was created by Matt Rehme at NCAR's Visualization Lab, part of the Computational & Information Systems Lab. It uses the latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Rehme had previously created a similar visualization of the 1997-98 El Niño. When comparisons between this year's El Niño and that event began flying around, he decided to make a second animation and compare the two.

"I was a little shocked just how closely 2015 resembles 1997 visually," Rehme said.

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Laura Snider


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