In the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of buoys float in the waves. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, uses this network of buoys to monitor ocean temperature, currents and winds to help predict global weather patterns. When Pacific Waters along the equator are unusually warm, an el Niño is likely on the way.

A strong el Niño can influence weather around the world – bringing drought to some, rain to others, even lessening the severity of Atlantic hurricanes.

In the U.S., the north is typically drier, while the south and west are more prone to heavy rains during the autumn and winter months. That’s potentially good news for drought stricken areas from California to Florida.

But there’s also a downside. The last really powerful el Niño, in 1997 and 1998, brought major storms that battered the California coast. Flooding and mudslides caused severe property damage and left thousands homeless.

Scientists worry that the next major el Niño, whether it happens this year or later, could be even more devastating – especially since both rising global temperatures and higher sea levels could lead to more widespread and costly damages.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.

More Resources
Big Question: This Year’s [2014] El Ni&ntildeo: How Big? How Destructive?
Kevin Trenberth on El Niño, Pt. 2 (Video)
ENSO: Recent Evolution, Current Status and Predictions
Climate Diagnostics Bulletin
El Nino weather hits many crops, boosts soybeans — study

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...