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April 29,


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Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Scientists identify 15-year 'Super-Niño'

Research by David Douglass suggests the Pacific Ocean may be home to a newly discovered weather pattern.

El Niño, the shift in ocean temperatures that was blamed for dozens of natural disasters in 1998, may be an oscillation in a much larger cycle of climate change that physicists at the University have dubbed "Super-Niño."

David Douglass, professor of physics, and his colleagues have mapped out the pattern of temperature fluctuations that suggest El Niños and their counterparts, La Niñas, are governed by a complex 15-year cycle: The Super-Niño. Douglass's team has noted three sequences since 1968, with the latest one beginning in 1994. The sequence suggests that a major El Niño event, though not as large as the 1998 event, is likely to occur this year.

"When we created this model back in July 2000, we estimated that we'd be off by as much as 50 percent," says Douglass. "But as we've been pulling the data together over the last several months, we've found that the actual ocean fluctuations were quite close to our predictions."

Douglass found that since 1968, three major El Niño events happened roughly 15 years apart, followed by two lesser peaks interspersed with La Niñas. The next temperature peak, according to Douglass' data, is due this summer and will be roughly two thirds as warm as the 1998 El Niño.

Douglass's model does have a limitation, however. Though the Super-Niño cycle lasts about 15 years, there is no way to predict when that cycle will begin.

"We're about two thirds of the way through a cycle now, so we can predict only to the end of it--around five years," says Douglass. "The predictive power of this model only comes into play once the Super-Niño has begun. Once that 15-year cycle has played out, we don't know if the next one will start immediately or years down the road."

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