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Date of Issue: July 08, 2009


El Niño, La Niña, now modiki out there to fret about

A new word has apparently been added to the meteorological lexicon: modiki. It’s a variant of El Niño and La Niña, but located a few hundred miles to the west of the other weather phenomena in the Pacific Ocean.

Huh? You say. Why would Anna Maria Islanders care?

El Niño is a cyclical event in the eastern Pacific near Peru. According to The New York Times’ Cornelia Dean, warmer water from El Niño “reduces hurricane activity in the Atlantic. But in a new study, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have linked a variant of that pattern — periodic warming in the central Pacific — to more frequent hurricanes in the Atlantic, particularly on the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean.”

They call the wind modiki. Modiki is Japanese for similar but different.

El Niño is named such because it usually starts around Christmas, hence a Christian naming of the Christ Child. The warm waters in the Pacific alter the wind patterns in the Atlantic, causing an effect called wind shear, which strips the top off any storms in our part of the world and diminishes the intensity of hurricanes.

“In an El Niño year,” The Times reports, “warming of the eastern Pacific changes air-flow patterns in the troposphere, the lowest portion of Earth's atmosphere, so that one layer moves eastward and the other westward. Wind shear then develops over the Atlantic, inhibiting the ability of storms to turn into tight, powerful gyres.

The reverse of El Niño is La Niña, which is a cooling of the eastern Pacific waters and a decrease in Atlantic Ocean wind shear, meaning more storms and more intense hurricane activity.

And now there’s modiki, which is a warming of central Pacific waters and a resultant intensification of Atlantic storms. That appears to be ongoing. There are also the indicators of an El Niño.

As with all scientific discovery, there’s lots of study yet to be done.

“The researchers and scientists who have reviewed their work said it was too soon to say whether the warming pattern resulted from global climate change, or simply had gone undetected,” reporter Dean said. “Scientists can detect warming in the central Pacific earlier than they can discern the development of an El Niño, the researchers said, so the new finding may help improve forecasts for hurricane seasons overall.

“Peter J. Webster, a professor of earth sciences at Georgia Tech and an author of the report, said the variant pattern was discovered in the 1980s by Japanese and Korean researchers, who dubbed it "modiki" El Niño.

“Webster said it might be difficult for researchers to determine whether the warming pattern was new because their observational record was relatively short and their climate models were imperfect.

‘“It may be responding to some oscillation or it may be in response to global warming,’ Webster said.”

Weather patterns now get clouded.

Government forecasters are predicting that an El Niño is forming in the Pacific, good news for those of us in the Atlantic basin since that harbingers fewer hurricanes.

But Georgia Tech folks are saying that a modiki is forming, bad news for us regarding hurricanes.

What’s up?

“We spent all last week trying to figure that out,” Webster told The Times. “It looks like it might be a hybrid, with warming starting in the east and them moving west, possibly meaning more hurricanes late in the season. Co-author Judith A. Curry said she feels that there is about a 50-percent chance that we could have one of the modiki years emerging by late summer. ‘We'll have to see how it plays out, but we could be seeing increased activity,’ she said. Predicting the number of Atlantic hurricanes may be improved by breaking El Niño into two modes, eastern Pacific warming and central Pacific warming.”

So here comes the scary stuff.

Forecasters called for an El Niño pattern in 2004. Good news, since that means less storm activity in the Atlantic.

Instead of a quiet year, though, we had 15 named storms, six of them severe. Charley. Frances. Ivan. Jeanne. And it was a modiki year.

 

To the rescue?

Your tax dollars, beside bailing out failing insurance and auto companies, is also paying for improvements to hurricane prediction technology.

But, uh, $170 million for two supercomputers?

According to news reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has received $839 million in stimulus money. “Of that, $167 million went for research in coastal habitat restoration,” according to Cox News reports. “That includes work on the Indian River Lagoon along the Treasure Coast, on a 43-acre preserve near St. Petersburg, in about 1,000 acres of coastal habitats near Cape Canaveral, and on coral reefs off the Florida coast. And $600 million went to build and repair NOAA buildings, ships and equipment. That figure includes the $170 million for those High Performance Computer units.”

NOAA folks hope the supercomputers will improve the accuracy of hurricane forecasts, particularly intensity estimates.

The National Hurricane Center has readily admitted that it’s made great strides in track forecasts, but is a bit lame in its intensity predictions. The new computers should help with future storm estimates.

They hope. We hope.

 

Sandscript factoid

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said that "more than 35 million Americans live in regions most threatened by Atlantic hurricanes.”

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