ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) Investigation

Nancy Flowers, LuAnne Thompson, and Stephen Po-Chedley


In this module students analyze sea surface temperature data collected over half a century and use this data to determine if the year was an El Niño, La Niña, or “normal”.  Students learn about climate variability and data analysis with the goal of being able to make predictions.  This module was created by Nancy Flowers (Everett High School) and enhanced with data through collaboration with LuAnne Thompson (UW Oceanography) and Stephen Po-Chedley.  The lab is part of the high school climate change curriculum but is also taught in Oceanography and other Earth Systems courses.

Learning Goals

1. To understand and identify the differences between El Niño, La Niña, and normal climate patterns

2. To be able to analyze precipitation data for the Pacific Northwest during El Niño and La Niña years

3. To use Excel to analyze and display data

Prior Knowledge

Students will be asked to perform some basic statistics on a real data set. It is expected that students have some prior experience finding the average, standard deviation and linear line of best fit. Students must also be familiar with climate variability (such as El Niño and La Niña events), understand terminology and vocabulary used (such as upwelling), have basic knowledge of geography, and understand and know how to read contour maps.


Suggested Textbook Reading:

  • Pg. 221-225 in Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science, Tom Garrison. 4th edition. Brooks/Cole, 2002.
  • Pg. 92-96 in The Earth System by Kump, L. R., J. F. Kasting, and R. G. Crane, Prentice Hall, 3rd ed., 2010.

NASA article: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/ElNino

NOAA website: https://www.climate.gov/enso

Animations and graphics


Attribution:  Flowers, N.,  Thompson, L., Po-Chedley S.,  “ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) Investigation” Climate Science for the Classroom edited by Bertram and Biyani, 2020. https://uw.pressbooks.pub/climate/chapter/enso-investigation/ Date of Access.


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ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) Investigation by Nancy Flowers, LuAnne Thompson, and Stephen Po-Chedley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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