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Ocean Surface Topography from Space
1997 research data reveal clues about El Niño's influence
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June 02, 1998

This image displays wind measurements taken by the satellite-borne NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) during the last 10 days of May 1997, showing the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere at the onset of the 1997-98 El Niño condition. The data have helped scientists confirm that the event began as an unusual weakening of the trade winds that preceded an increase in sea surface temperatures. The arrows represent wind speed and direction while the colors indicate sea surface temperature. The sea surface temperatures were measured by the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, a joint mission of NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The trade winds normally blow from east to west, but the small arrows in the center of the image show the winds have changed direction and are blowing in the opposite direction. The areas shown in red are above normal sea surface temperatures -- along the equator, off the west coast of the U.S., and along the west coast of Mexico. This image also shows an unusual low pressure system with cyclonic (counterclockwise) circulation near the western North American coast. NSCAT also observed that winds associated with this circulation pattern branched off from the equator, bypassed Hawaii, and brought heat and moisture from the tropical ocean towards San Francisco, in what is often called the "pineapple express."

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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