Exploring El Niño Locally and Globally

Exploring El Niño Locally and Globally

Though western Massachusetts has finally seen its first true snowfall of the season, allowing the landscape to look like one of mid-winter in New England, this winter’s unseasonably warm and snow-less days have been a bit unsettling. While discussions of the effects of climate change on our region are not misguided, it is the effects of El Niño that we can say with certainty we are experiencing. This weather event, which causes a global impact, is the result of a complicated switching of winds and currents in the Pacific – and its effects have brought us the balmy winter we’d expect if we lived in a more southerly clime. Using diagrams, online resources, books, and even music, families can explore climate science and the effects of El Niño so as to gain insight into this year’s unusual winter weather.

Named after the Christian holidays that take place during the time of its occurrence, El Niño means “the child” in English, though its true meaning is intended to reflect the importance of one specific child. Named in the 17th century by Spanish-speaking Christians exploring the Pacific Ocean, El Niño refers to the unusual weather patterns and ocean currents that sometimes take place in December – right around Christmas, making El Niño’s namesake the baby Jesus. 

So what is El Niño, anyway? Well – it’s fairly complicated. Here in Massachusetts, El Niño means warmer temperatures and unseasonable weather – rain instead of snow, for example, and 60-degree days in late December. Here, however, we’re merely experiencing the aftereffects of El Niño. In the Pacific, El Niño means not only changes in weather, but changes in winds and water currents, too. In non-El Niño years, currents in the Pacific combine with wind patterns to move warmer water from the coast of South America towards Asia and Australia, allowing warmer water to build up on the eastern edges of the ocean while colder waters rise on the ocean’s western edge. In El Niño years, however, wind and water patterns change, causing the cycling of warm water to change, too. Rather than moving east with warm winds, warm ocean water sticks around near South America while the easterly winds leaving the continent battle strong westerly winds blowing across the ocean from Asia.

When El Niño takes place, warmer ocean waters near South America cause more clouds and more rain in the parts of the world that are near the equator and have coastline on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. But for those of us who live much nearer the Atlantic coast, El Niño brings warmer temperatures and, this year, has given us a surplus of rain rather than snow.

To better understand the causes of El Niño and its effects both locally and globally, families can look to online resources offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Air and Space Administration (NASA). Families can pair studies of El Niño with a look into weather and climate science using resources suggested in some of our archived posts, including the water cycle and weather episodes of the Hilltown Family Variety Show and suggestions for weather-themed children’s books from Cheli Mennella’s column, Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Reviews. Families might even channel weather studies into some cloud-oriented citizen science after finishing up explorations of the roots and effects of El Niño!

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