Scientists are watching early El Nino signs in a different way

File photo of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite in 2020. The satellite is monitoring wave heights in the Pacific, which is an early indicator of El Nino conditions. (ESA/Stephane Corvaja via AP) (Stephane Corvaja, ESA-Stephane Corvaja)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The probability of an El Nino developing this summer continues to increase, and scientists now have a unique way of monitoring the early signs.

A NASA satellite called Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich is watching the waters of the central Pacific, but using a very different technology.

Waves not temps

Most satellites that monitor the Pacific off the coast of Peru monitor water temperatures. This is often a great indication that El Nino conditions are underway.

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite watches things in a different way.

It is monitoring wave activity, and the area where El Nino conditions developing are showing higher than normal waves.

A Kelvin Wave

These enhanced waves continue for thousands of miles right along the Equator.

The enhanced wave are actually one very large wave called a Kelvin wave.

Satellite image of the Kelvin wave over the Equator from late April (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Kelvin waves, when they develop at the Equator, bring warm water from the western Pacific to the eastern Pacific.

What’s remarkable is the satellite is monitoring waves that are actually quite small -- about 2-4 inches high.

Scientists already know that a series of Kelvin waves often are a key indicator that El Nino conditions are starting.

The start of El Nino

This data, coupled with already seen warmer than average water temperatures, brings higher certainty that an El Nino will likely develop this summer.

NOAA is now giving a 90% chance of El Nino conditions developing and lasting into the winter of 2024.

El Nino conditions help reduce tropical activity due to wind shear.

El Nino conditions help reduce Atlantic tropical activity, by increasing wind shear in parts of the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean.

Those same conditions also lead to unsettled weather in Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida in the winter months.

This latest satellite from NASA is another tool scientists can use to watch for the early signs of El Nino and monitor its progress over the next several months.