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La Nina and Pacific Decadal Oscillation Cool the Pacific
This page contains archived content and is no longer being updated. At the time of publication, it represented the best available science. However, more recent observations and studies may have rendered some content obsolete.
A cool-water anomaly known as La Niña occupied the tropical Pacific Ocean throughout 2007 and early 2008. In April 2008, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that while the La Niña was weakening, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation—a larger-scale, slower-cycling ocean pattern—had shifted to its cool phase.
This image shows the sea surface temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean from April 14–21, 2008. The anomaly compares the recent temperatures measured by the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite with an average of data collected by the NOAA Pathfinder satellites from 1985–1997. Places where the Pacific was cooler than normal are blue, places where temperatures were average are white, and places where the ocean was warmer than normal are red.
The cool water anomaly in the center of the image shows the lingering effect of the year-old La Niña. However, the much broader area of cooler-than-average water off the coast of North America from Alaska (top center) to the equator is a classic feature of the cool phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The cool waters wrap in a horseshoe shape around a core of warmer-than-average water. (In the warm phase, the pattern is reversed).
Unlike El Niño and La Niña, which may occur every 3 to 7 years and last from 6 to 18 months, the PDO can remain in the same phase for 20 to 30 years. The shift in the PDO can have significant implications for global climate, affecting Pacific and Atlantic hurricane activity, droughts and flooding around the Pacific basin, the productivity of marine ecosystems, and global land temperature patterns.
#8220;This multi-year Pacific Decadal Oscillation ‘cool’ trend can intensify La NiÃ±a or diminish El NiÃ±o impacts around the Pacific basin,” said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer and climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “The persistence of this large-scale pattern [in 2008] tells us there is much more than an isolated La Niña occurring in the Pacific Ocean.”
Natural, large-scale climate patterns like the PDO and El Niño-La Niña are superimposed on global warming caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and landscape changes like deforestation. According to Josh Willis, JPL oceanographer and climate scientist, “These natural climate phenomena can sometimes hide global warming caused by human activities. Or they can have the opposite effect of accentuating it.”
NASA image by Jesse Allen, AMSR-E data processed and provided by Chelle Gentemann and Frank Wentz, Remote Sensing Systems. Caption by Rebecca Lindsey, adapted from a press release from NASA JPL.
The cool water anomaly in the center of the image shows the lingering effect of the year-old La Niña. However, the much broader area of cooler-than-average water off the coast of North America from Alaska (top center) to the equator is a classic feature of the cool phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).