Scientists from 19 nations to begin massive study of 'warm pool' in Pacific

September 23, 1992|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Scientists from 19 nations plan to launch a massive study Nov. 1 of the warm surface air and waters of the western equatorial Pacific, where much of the Earth's ocean heat is pumped into the atmosphere and where, some researchers think, the effects of global warming may first be felt.

The four-month study will be "the largest, most complex upper-ocean experiment ever done," combined with "one of the largest atmospheric experiments ever done," said David J. Carlson, director of the Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment. Dr. Carlson described the project at the National Press Club here yesterday.

A variety of U.S. agencies are participating in the effort, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Dr. Carlson said NOAA and NSF plan to spend about $30 million on the project.

More than 800 researchers will do detailed studies of temperatures, currents, winds and storms in what climate specialists call the "warm pool," a patch in the Pacific the size of the United States northeast of Papua-New Guinea. Scientists will man weather stations scattered on isolated islands, conduct studies from ships and planes, and gather data using unmanned balloons, buoys and satellites.

Every four to five years this sultry stretch of ocean, where surface temperatures are generally higher than 82 degrees and about 195 inches of rain fall each year, spawns an El Nino. That occurs when the warm pool, which Dr. Carlson called a massive "heat engine" pumping most of the globe's ocean warmth into the atmosphere, spreads east along the equator and reaches the coast of South America.

This event has enormous impact on global weather systems, Dr. Carlson said. A relatively mild El Nino that occurred last winter, he said, probably led to the current drought in the Pacific Northwest, which has suffered forest fires and depleted reservoirs.

The El Nino of 1982-83, the strongest of this century, sent fish migrating south from the coast of Peru to Chile, damaging Peru's economy and strengthening Chile's. That same year, drought sparked huge fires in Borneo and Australia and brought famine to India and east Africa. Heavy rains, meanwhile, flooded the east coast of equatorial South America, large parts of Brazil and the Rocky Mountains.

El Nino may also play a pivotal role in global warming, Dr. Carlson said. Researchers currently fear that the worldwide increase in carbon dioxide and other so-called "greenhouse" gases produced by industry, agriculture and automobiles may mean the Earth is absorbing and retaining more heat from the sun.

Many scientists think any warming would simply increase the average global temperature. But Dr. Carlson said one theory holds that the warming may instead whip up stronger and more frequent El Ninos. That, in turn, could create more devastating cycles of drought and flood throughout the globe.

There is not enough evidence to prove that that is happening. "We can't see that," Dr. Carlson said. "It's pretty clear there's been a pretty regular occurrence [of El Nino] for 250 years . . . [But] the observational data are not good enough to tell us whether in fact its intensity or frequency has changed."

The warm pool has not been closely studied before because the western Pacific is so sparsely populated, Dr. Carlson said. And most data from the region has been gathered with weather balloons, which fly too high, and subsurface sensors slung from ships, which sink too low, to measure the surface heat exchange.

The November effort, he said, "will bring measurements right down to the surface," in some cases with specially-designed equipment.

The countries cooperating in the study include France, Germany, Australia, Britain, China, Indonesia, Micronesia, the Solomon Islands and Nauru.

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