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How a jugalbandi of oceans impacts our climate patterns

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

How a jugalbandi of oceans impacts our climate patterns

In contrast to El Niño, the “cool cousin” La Niña when it becomes powerful will likely bring an increased amount of rainfall and cooler temperatures to India...

How a jugalbandi of oceans impacts our climate patterns

Expert Expressions

Dr C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and a director of the Consortium for Sustainable Development, Connecticut, U.S

Going by the news media reports on climate change, there has been a growing interest in the oceanic phenomenon called ‘El Niño’ – an occasional warming phase of the surface waters that originates in the distant tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. Why would the people of India worry about something happening in a distant ocean, off the South American country of Peru? It can have a significant global impact on weather patterns and thus economies. The warming of the Pacific waters is intricately related to precipitation patterns in many parts of the world including the South Asian Monsoon - a lifeline for billions of people in India.

Like ‘Yin and Yang’ – the Chinese concept of interconnected, but opposite forces, El Niño is only one end of the spectrum, and the other end is called ‘La Niña’, formed when the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean builds up cooler surface waters. First noticed by the Peruvian fishers, they coined the terms El Niño and La Niña in Spanish, meaning ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Little Girl’. Scientists call this phenomenon the El Niño -Southern Oscillation – ENSO – cycle.

During normal times the trade winds or easterlies blow parallel to the equator from east to west forcing the warm water from the Pacific Ocean off South America to flow toward the Asian side. The trade winds help push the upper warm water away in this region facilitating the cold nutrient-rich water to rise from the bottom to keep the upwelling processes active - a process that helps the ocean life from microscopic plankton to fish to thrive. But during the El Niño phase, trade winds lose their strength pushing the warm water to the west coast of the Americas, while during La Niña, the trade winds gather strength. However, the fundamental processes that lead to the Pacific oscillation between warm and cold phases lie in the intricate interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere.

The phenomenon of southern oscillation was first discovered by Gilbert Thomas Walker, who was working as the director general of the meteorological observatories in India in 1904. He used his solid mathematical knowledge to develop correlation parameters of vast amounts of weather data from India and other parts of the world. He was the first to report the alternating oscillation pattern of atmospheric pressure between India and the Pacific Ocean and its relation to the variable temperature and rainfall patterns in the tropical regions including India, though no one gave much attention to his findings during those days. Walker was way ahead of his time.

The rediscovery of the so-called ‘Walker Circulation’, named after Gilbert Walker, was made possible in the 1960s with the help of satellite observations that established the fact that the ocean and atmosphere are indeed ‘coupled’, with implications for global climate as a part of a complicated feedback loop. These days advanced satellite technologies like the data collected by the Advanced Very High-Resolution Radiometer help us monitor the surface temperature anomalies of the oceans. We are now able to blend global rainfall data from several satellites.

It is not clear what is the starting point of the ENSO feedback loop. It is possible that when the trade winds slacken the sea surface temperature starts to warm up or cool in response to the strengthening of the winds. Be that as it may, the cyclical phenomena of temperature oscillation, after their formation in response to the waxing and waning of the trade winds typically last for a year, but sometimes extend for years and occur every two to seven years and extend far forming a long swath across the world. The previous year recorded unprecedented high temperatures globally and El Nino is believed to be a key driver.

A new study published in the science journal Geophysical Research Letters, however, shows that although natural variabilities like changes in solar heat have a major role in triggering El Nino, it is now found to be also influenced by human-induced global warming that requires “the input of anthropogenic greenhouse gases” and the “climate change tipping point may have been crossed in the 1970s”.

Now it is reported by the NOAA’s Climate Centre that the “Super Strong El Niño” cranked up unprecedented heat in the Pacific waters that recorded more than 2 degrees over what was normal and is about to take its final bow from the stage very soon - because of the strong El Nino impact, the last year proved to be the hottest year on record. India had undergone the worst hot period, and the driest August in 120 years, marked by an uneven distribution of rainfall with a 6% deficit in overall precipitation. At least 25% of the country is reported to be under drought conditions until December. With the ENSO expected to turn neutral by April 2024, how long will it take the other player of the jugalbandi, La Nina to take on the centre stage?

In contrast to El Niño, the “cool cousin” La Niña when it becomes powerful will likely bring an increased amount of rainfall and cooler temperatures to India. The question is how powerful La Niña would be this time to make substantial changes in the weather patterns, so the arid areas that suffered the worst during El Nino could let out a sigh of relief.  But that is only part of the story, and La Nina could turn out to be ‘rakshas’ or a destroyer sowing seeds of distress if it assumes too much power. A strong La Niña could end up generating untimely rainfall leading to massive floods destroying crops and property damage unless timely precautions are taken to contain the losses and sufficiently prepared to mitigate the potential hazards.

Introducing The Rumbling Earth: The Story of Indian Earthquakes

The renowned seismologists CP Rajendran and Kusala Rajendran offer a riveting story of the Indian earthquakes, their science, history and impact. Like all other natural phenomena, earthquakes are part of life-sustaining forces—the creators of the mountains, valleys and springs or even deserts on Earth—a theatre where the show never ends. The book takes the readers to some exciting parts of India to show how earthquakes change the topography where a sea existed not far in the past—now a salt marsh, affecting the social life, trade and livelihood. The book discusses the likelihood of the next big earthquake in the Himalayas against the backdrop of the devastating earlier ones revealed by archaeology, history and geology. It probes the causes and aftermath of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and gives a glimpse of the past. The high-impact earthquakes will happen, but they need not always end up as human catastrophes. The authors have spent much of their professional lives studying the earthquakes in India and abroad. They tell us from their vast experience how to negotiate the impacts of earthquakes and related hazards by following science-based strategies. Earth science, often overlooked in school curricula, requires basic knowledge of the Earth's structure and processes. Recognizing this knowledge gap, the authors deemed it crucial to document information on past earthquakes. The book, inspired by interactions during field visits, addresses questions from students, laypersons, and young researchers, aiming to provide a simple yet informative resource on earthquake understanding. Dr CP Rajendran, a luminary in the field of seismology, brings over three decades of expertise to ‘The Rumbling Earth’. Holding a Ph.D. in Geophysics, Dr Rajendran has dedicated his career to unravelling the mysteries of Earth's seismic forces. Dr Kusala Rajendran, the co-author of ‘The Rumbling Earth’, stands as a distinguished seismologist with a rich background in geological sciences. With a Ph.D. in Earth Science, Dr Kusala Rajendran has conducted groundbreaking research in seismic hazards and geophysics. Together, their dedication to unravelling the secrets of Earth's seismic forces has made them prominent voices in the field. ‘The Rumbling Earth’ is set to be released this month and will be available in major bookstores, online platforms, and independent retailers. Happy reading!- TreeTake Team

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