Thoughts on the El Niño Southern Oscillation and Its Possible Cause

It is probable that I am wrong on this, but I am the sort that doesn’t take it personally when I am wrong, so why not ask the question that is in my head?

The EL Niño Southern Oscillation is pretty erratic in both warm and cold phases (El Niño and La Niña), in magnitude, in timing, and in duration.  Four or five years ago I conjectured that some unknown heat source is the cause of it and that ENSO itself is just an intermediate step in the processing of huge amounts of heat energy in the equatorial Pacific.  I speculated then if perhaps hydrothermal vents and/or undersea volcanoes could be the fundamental source of this heat energy.  I considered this possible because of two reasons. First, I could not find any description of the causes of ENSO, just descriptions OF it – as if it just falls out of the sky each time, with no cause.  Most articles seemed to assume IT was the cause.  Yet its vast heat energy had to have come from somewhere, somewhere other than itself.

We do know that heat is coming up out of the vents, along with minerals that sustain weird life forms. The academic focus on these vents has been mostly centered on the sexy study of the life forms found at vents, plus studying the chemistry present and its potential benefits.

But I wondered then if the heat may be something to look at, too. No one seemed to be looking at that aspect.

The basic question was:  Could the vents have irregular but somewhat cyclical heat output that has not been identified or connected with ENSO that might be underlying why and when El Niños occur?

(Even if this is wrong, it seems to me to be worth looking into it, if only to determine why it is wrong – to eliminate it as a possibility. Except no one else seemed to be even asking this question.)

Alternatively, could the ocean currents in the region vary in direction and thus direct the heat in different directions at different times (perhaps getting dispersed in some of those directions before any heat energy buildup occurs)?

Terrestrial Heat Flow
Today while looking for something entirely different, I ran across this image of four maps, with one of them being a heat flow map:

Heat Flow Map at lower left shows very elevated heat flow on the Pacific Rise               (from

That map in the lower left really caught my attention.  “Heat flow” here means the heat coming up from the Earth’s core and being able to be measured at the surface.  That deep red at the edge of the Nazca tectonic plate is just about perfectly situated to be adding heat to the ocean right at the area where the El Niños begin.  The upper end of it is very close to the eastern end of the El Niño phenomenon, right where the intersection is.  The plate boundary going east from that intersection is called the Galapagos Rift.  On most of the heat flow maps that rift seems to be where much of the heat is shown.

Two questions arise:

1. Is enough heat brought up there to affect the temperatures of the equatorial current?
2. Is it silly to think that the heat is cyclical?

As I understand it (and, folks, please educate me about this if you can) the existing theory of the El Niños involves the heat being sequestered by down-dwelling currents.

I went looking for more info on this, and it turns out there is an organization that keeps track of heat flow out of the Earth, the International Heat Flow Commission (IHFC).  At their website I found this map, which in that region somewhat confirms the first heat flow map:

Modeled Heat Flow Map

The IHFC has undertaken to maintain a database at , which includes 23,000+ measured heat flow locations in the oceans.  See this map for marine heat flow locations and values:

                  Heat Flow Data Map – Notice the red spots west of Ecuador                                        (from

Okay, the image is no enlargeable, so go to the link to see it better.  Note if you can that the range for the last colored (red) diamond is “180 to 500,000” !  The units are mW/m^2.  Be aware that 500,000 mW/m^2 equals 500 watts/m^2.  That is 50% MORE than the incoming solar radiation.  Reason would argue that such a large number on that legend would not be there if there had not been at least one example with nearly that amount of heat flow.

The heat flow average for the northern hemisphere is 61.4 mW/m^2.  The heat flow average for the southern hemisphere is much less, at 37 mW/m^2.  (from

I am not a database guy, though I can do chart and basic linear analysis in Excel, but I could not do an analysis on this data because the 3D chart was limited to 4,000 data points.  But I still tried to glean some information from the spreadsheet, anyway.

A sorting of the IHFC data showed that the area bounded by 77°W – 110°W and 0° – 5°N has a lot of data locations with MUCH higher heat flux than the average.  And what I am positing is that perhaps this region has some very anomalous heat.  And that is certainly born out by the data, though this region is not the only region that has VERY high heat flux coming out of the Earth.  How high?  Remember that the average heat flux in the northern hemisphere is 61.7 mW/m^2.  The highest in this area is 8278 mW/m^2, with the following summary of of data locations with numbers higher than ANY in the southern Pacific, and all between 0 – 5°N and 77 – 110°:

  • 3,000 to 8,278 – 5
  • 2,000 to 3,000 – 4
  • 1,000 to 2,000 – 30
  • 334    to    999 – 194

All those 233 samples gave a mean of 0.756 W/m^2.  That value is about 12 times as high as the average value for the northern hemisphere.  Is that amount important?  Is that amount large enough to cause an effect?  Is it enough to sequester heat in Trenberth’s deeper ocean?  (Perhaps the heat was already under the ocean instead of having to migrate to there. And keep in mind how small of a sample those 233 points represent, out of the IHFC’s total of .  They are only a small portion of the points sampled even in that small area.  Even the 2600 other less energy dense points still add heat above  the average for the northern hemisphere.

BTW actually all of those locations were within an area bounded by 86° – 86°40′ and 0° – 0°55′.  And the area is essentially ON the Equator – right where El Niño initializes.

Interestingly, the similar area south of the equator did not show very high values.  The highest values of heat flux in the southern region down to 5°S is 333, and there are very few points measured so far, especially when compared to the area only 5° farther north.  This suggests that whatever it is causing the heat flow numbers I see is itself close to the Equator but slightly north.  The Galapagos Rift fits both ways:  the Galapagos islands are essentially on the Equator and the rift is just north of the islands.  They also happen to be measured with the highest heat flow, too.  (More on the GR in a soon to come post.)

Readings evidently were not taken in close by areas, so there is presently no real way to determine how large of an area has such high heat flux values.  Sampling was done at single points around the world, and though many readings were gotten there (and I do mean specifically ‘there’, as close as all those 243 measurements were taken to each other).  So there would be a lot of hit or miss.  And evidently no one has gone back to this area for a larger collection of data.  All of those were done back in the late ’70s to the mid-’80s.

So, so far we seem to have a focused region of high heat flux coming out of the Earth itself, coincidentally at the place where the El Niño gets started with its large plume of heated surface water.  And coincidentally near the Pacific Rise, where, like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, heated magma is coming up and pressing the sides of the ridge away from each other.

Let’s look a little bit further…

Mid-ocean Ridges

At, I found this description:

New oceanic plates are created at mid-ocean ridges. About 2.4 cubic miles (10 cubic km) of new oceanic crust is added each year (not all of this magma is erupted by volcanoes). This is about 100 times the volume of lava erupted by Kilauea each year.

Mid-ocean ridges are divided into these groups based on their spreading rates:

  1. Slow: 1-5 cm/yr total opening rate
  2. Medium: 5-10 cm/yr total opening rate
  3. Fast: 10-20 cm/yr total opening rate…

…Fast-spreading mid-ocean ridges move 100-200 mm/yr. The East Pacific Rise is perhaps the best studied fast-spreading mid-ocean ridge. The ridge segment that creates the Nazca and Pacific plates moves up to 5.6 inches (142 mm) each year…

At a fast-spreading mid-ocean ridge the magma supply rate is higher. This keeps the plates warmer and the crest of the rise does not subside.

So it just so happens that the Pacific Rise in the eastern Pacific is a fast spreading ocean ridge.  One would expect from “fast spreading” and with a higher magma supply rate, that the amount of heat energy being released into the ocean water is at its highest at such places as the Pacific Rise.

Is it significant that the plates themselves also are kept warmer?  Heat is heat, but is it enough?

That same site has some wonderful modeled images of the Pacific Rise.  (Yes, beware of models…)

Heat Flow Diagram

Climatologist Kevin Trenberth’s top of atmosphere (TOA) heat flow diagram is shown here:

Earth’s Energy Balance (Trenberth)

A recent paper Stephens et al 2012, The Global Character of the Flux of Downward Longwave Radiation, has revised some of the values based on more up-to-date empirical measurements:

Updated Earth Energy Balance – Stephens et al (2012)

Note the “sensible heat” flux out of the Earth itself is shown as 24 W/m^2.  Then there is also latent heat of all the water evaporating, 88 W/m^2.

Trenberth shows a “Net Absorbed” of 0.9 W/m^2.  Stephens shows a “Surface Imbalance” of 0.6 W/m^2.  Theoretically there should BE no imbalance, not if it is a steady state planet.

If I am right in my figuring and my conjecture, this region is adding approximately the average of Trenberth and Stephens to the atmosphere above it.  This would double the heat flow in that area.

Is that 0.76 W/m^2 enough to build up to an El Niño event?

If it is a matter of the currents changing, I have it on good authority that the ocean currents are driven by the wind.  Do the winds anywhere nearby change directions from season to season and year to year?  After all, the El Niño is named for the Christmas season, with El Niño being the baby Jesus.  It is related to seasons, yes.

Does that mean that that explains it?  NO.  I am just tossing out an idea and hope to hear some constructive criticism.  The idea may not hold water as it stands.  But if it needs modification to get it right, I am all for that.

It DOES seem like the amount of terrestrial heat flow might be enough to trigger something, just in that area where the El Niño is known to rev itself up from time to time.  Are they connected?  That is my question.

I do NOT know enough about the currents and wind in that region and this story is long enough already.  Perhaps if this idea isn’t completely bonkers I will attempt a sequel.


7 responses to “Thoughts on the El Niño Southern Oscillation and Its Possible Cause

  1. Hi Steve! I followed you over from WUWT and the hydrothermal vent thread. I grew up in Idaho in an area in which old lava flows erupt from the landscape everywhere and my mom ignited a fascination with them in me as a child. There’s a National Preserve called “Craters of the Moon” that I visited many times as a kid that still fascinates me to this day. Look it up.

    Anyway, that led to me being excited when hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor started being mentioned in the news and scientific publications. It’s amazing to someone like me (not a college graduate or scientist) that it appears that the “experts” seem to entirely forget or not know or rule out, that this planet is STILL cooking on the inside, and that according to basic physics, if it’s NOT venting that pressure somehow, it would enlarge until it exploded.

    I found a website a while ago and was shocked and SICK to find out that the “expert” determinations of how much vulcanism affects our climate are SO OLD and SO HORRIBLY MINIMAL. It’s laughable when you find out where the “standards” agreed upon in the scientific community are based on! Where is the oversight? The curiosity? The desire for the truth? It makes me very sad.

    Here’s that site if you haven’t seen it before. It really got my attention-

    Thanks for your comments and dogged determination on this topic, and good luck with it in the future. I’ll send you any information I find or have on it if you’d like.

  2. Aphan –

    As to the planet still cooking on the inside, that is one way to put it. It is certainly hotter on the inside than the outside. The climatologists make the assumption, though, that the crust is a perfect insulator, it seems. If you look at ANY of the “Heat Balance” diagrams you will not see ANY amount of heat flow out of the earth listed. (Google “heat balance diagram” in Google Image) The average for the northern hemisphere is given as 64 mWm^-2, which IS minmal, and the SH is even lower, at 37 mWm^-2. So they DO have a point. The smallest heat flow in that heat flow diagram is 0.9 Wm^-2, about 14 times the NH and 24 times the SH. The heat flow is what is leaking out. They DO measure it – at several thousand locations – so it is not like the geologists aren’t covering that base.

    The International Heat Flow Commission (see above), though ALSO shows that there ARE hot spots, with the area right where Walker points at with the seismic activity right below the start of the El Niño. When you have seismic activity around a volcano (undersea or on land) it means magma is moving. On an ocean ridge, magma moving means it is coming out the top, along the ridge. When that magma is moving under the fastest spreading oceanic ridge, then it means you should at least look at what is going on before pontificating that “Move along folks – nothing to see here,” (which is a favorite phrase of Anthony over at WUWT.

    In one of Willis’ recent posts at WUWT, he pointed out that something he had come up with himself actually turned out to be some form of slow Faurier Transforms. Willis pointed out that he was not sad that others had done it first. To him, it was a gin that he is thinking in the right direction. And I agree with him. On THIS topic I invented the idea out of my own head, and curiosity and putting two and two together, and as long as I was the only one saying it, I felt like I was out on a limb. But now I find that – like Willis’ Faurier Transforms – this same idea has been out there for over 20 years – And PUBLISHED in academic journals, no less, they can’t just say, “It doesn’t agree with Bob Tisdale, so it must be wrong.” It IS significant that Walker’s papers have passed journal editorial review and peer review. It means that Bob T’s opinion and Willis’ completely uninformed opinion on this are counterbalanced by journal editors.

    Bob T is claiming that there is no data, so he will ignore it. Willis got one sentence in and is also ignoring it. But the data is not in the article. It is in the Walker papers, which I can’t get at. It’s behind a paywall. I don’t have $40 to pay every time I want to access a paper.

    Back to the amount of heat – minimal or not – I agree with them as to the normal heat flow around the world. But the El Niño doesn’t get caused by something happening all over the world. It is starting an a SMALL region. Looking at the average all over would be nonsense. When the actual MEASURED heat flow in that area – by people who don’t have an axe to grind on this – is approaching the “absorbed heat” level, then it is worth considering, even if it is only to falsify it.

  3. . . .cont’d. . .


    As to volcano energy/heat, if the volcanoes are not erupting geologists and climatologists consider them to not adding anything to the climate. And, if you’ve noticed, when big volcanoes erupt their output is actually measured to LOWER the planet’s average temperature. This is because of aerosols which reflect sunlight and its energy OUT of the atmosphere. Volcanoes are BIG aerosol producers.

    YES, heat is also added, but the amount of heat is outweighed by the action of aerosols.


    There are some very smart people out there – some climatologists even – who will tell you straight out: The amount of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere is far too low to cause any problems with warming.

    That includes any CO2 that comes out of volcanoes or peat in the Arctic or any other sources. CO2 levels were FAR higher in what is called the Holocene Climate Optimum. Don’t read Wikipedia on that, because the warmists have hijacked any and all climate-related Wiki pages, so you are not going to get the straight dope – only one side.

    CO2 is not an issue in the real world. Only in the minds of Chicken Littles.

    That is my opinion.

    If you haven’t seen any of his stuff, I recommend Matt Ridley. Look him up on YouTube. He posts on YouTube from time to time. He points out sources that indicate that the CO2 is actually VERY beneficial – by way of helping plants grow bigger and faster.


    • I’m just reading your response now…but I seriously spewed diet Pepsi on my laptop when I read that there is actually an International Heat Flow Commission! Wow. just wow. So SOMEONE thought this whole thing was important enough to create a commission on it. But I’m still chuckling….and reading…

  4. Yeah, you are right about the commission. I found it just in my doggedness. Some of the material in this post is from there, and the link, too. They REALLY cover the oceans quite well – better, I think, than the land. See the map at

    And in some places like the EPR and the Galapagos Rift they did a LOT of sampling. Lots of data. Look at how desnely packed the data points are on that map. They can do more – and I think they NEED to do more. But until the link to El Niño gets more press that may not happen.

  5. Here are some links to other articles while I see if my magic surfing can uncover the Walker papers somewhere else. (Forgive me if these are all duplicates of stuff you’ve already seen)

    This one might be out there, but Chart 108 will interest you-
    (Click on the link at right on that page that says “view” and you can read the article)


  6. BTW, I think measuring heat flow out of the Earth would be a TERRIBLY difficult thing to measure. How do they isolate the heat from below from solar insolation? From greenhouse effect? From urban heat island effect? Wet soil vs dry soil? And probably lots of other factors.

    Do they do it under the ground? Heat flow means they have to KNOW that the heat is moving. Though I see this as being in my favor, I still want to ask how is it measured? I did R&D for 8 years, so I have some experience in addressing this kind of measurement thing. You can measure the wrong things and really mess up the research!

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