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Studying The Heart Of El Niño, Where Its Weather Begins

Henry Fountain, The New York Times

“Our strong suspicion is that our models have major errors in reproducing some of these [El Nino] responses,” he said. “The only way we can tell is by going out and doing observations.”

A thousand miles south of Hawaii, the air at 45,000 feet above the equatorial Pacific was a shimmering gumbo of thick storm clouds and icy cirrus haze, all cooked up by the overheated waters below.

In a Gulfstream jet more accustomed to hunting hurricanes in the Atlantic, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were cruising this desolate stretch of tropical ocean where the northern and southern trade winds meet. It’s an area that becalmed sailors have long called the doldrums, but this year it is anything but quiet.

This is the heart of the strongest El Niño in a generation, one that is pumping moisture and energy into the atmosphere and, as a result, roiling weather worldwide.

The plane, with 11 people aboard including a journalist, made its way Friday on a long westward tack, steering clear of the worst of the disturbed air to the south. Every 10 minutes, on a countdown from Mike Holmes, one of two flight directors, technicians in the rear released an instrument package out through a narrow tube in the floor. Slowed by a small parachute, the devices, called dropsondes, fell toward the water, transmitting wind speed and direction, humidity and other atmospheric data back to the plane continuously on the way down.

The information, parsed by scientists and fed into weather models, may improve forecasting of El Niño’s effect on weather by helping researchers better understand what happens here, at the starting point.

“One of the most important questions is to resolve how well our current weather and climate models do in representing the tropical atmosphere’s response to an El Niño,” said Randall Dole, a senior scientist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and one of the lead researchers on the project. “It’s the first link in the chain.”

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