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Study Maps the Pacific's Impact on Weather

For 10 years, an international team of scientists has examined how warm seas and the atmosphere interact to produce floods, drought

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1993


FARMERS around the world will benefit from a major atmospheric study recently completed here. The project will provide more-accurate information about when droughts, floods, or cyclones are coming - and how bad they will be.

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The program, actually two together, is called TOGA COARE, which stands for the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere/Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment. TOGA is a decade-long program to try to understand the El Nino sea-warming phenomenon by putting together data from weather stations and ocean stations over a wide area. The goal is to forecast droughts, floods, or stormy periods from months to years in advance. COARE is the specific four-month field-research component focused on the interaction bet ween the atmosphere and the water in the Pacific Ocean, which concluded its work last week.

While separate studies have been done in the sea and air in the past, this research is the first combined project.

The western Pacific warm pool, a huge expanse of tropical ocean along the equator northeast of Australia, plays a key role in climate variations. What happens here has an effect on weather all over the world.

The Western Tropical Pacific Southern Oscillation (South Americans call it El Nino) involves a warm event in the western region that causes a dry event or a change in circulation in the eastern region. The result is floods in parts of South America and drought across northern Australia.

"It's all a coupled system. Whenever one happens, the other happens, and the system covers two-thirds of the planet from the Indian Ocean across the Pacific, at least in the tropics," says David Carlson, who headed the international project office of TOGA COARE. "And we know it has effects on the North and South American continents and the Indian and Australian continents."

Central operations were at a Royal Australian Air Force base, but a more rugged research site existed at Honiara in the Solomon Islands, and ships and planes traversed the whole region. Research vessels from Australia, France, Japan, the People's Republic of China, South Korea, and the United States used instrumented buoys to measure temperature, salinity, and horizontal and vertical motion in the upper ocean. The US, Britain, and Australia supplied aircraft and pilots to fly missions from Townsville, Au stralia, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea to make measurements in the upper atmosphere.

Other countries that provided specialized instruments and satellites included Canada, the Federated States of Micronesia, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Nauru.

Some small island countries were concerned about floods caused by rising waters attributed to global warming. "On many of these atolls where the highest elevation is four meters, a meter's rise [in the ocean] looks like a drastic change," Mr. Carlson says.

Stuart Godfrey, the bearded leader of the Australian scientific vessel Franklin, which measured heat transfer between ocean and atmosphere, says the Australian government is keenly interested in furthering such research, since Australia just emerged from a three-year drought.

"When an El Nino occurs, this has a dramatic effect," says Mr. Godfrey. "The kind of understanding we hope to get will have more of an impact here than anywhere else."