This image of the Pacific Ocean was produced using sea-surface height measurements taken by the U.S.-French TOPEX/Poseidon satellite. The image shows sea surface height relative to normal ocean conditions on January 17, 1999; sea surface height is an indicator of the heat content of the ocean. This image shows that the unusual large-scale warming (shown here in red and white) in the northwest Pacific that was first observed by the satellite in November 1998 has increased in size and spread east to the central Pacific and south to the equator. The low sea level or cold pool of water along the equator, commonly referred to as La Niña (shown in purple), has weakened in size and heat content during the last several months. Although weakening, the La Niña pattern continues to exert a strong influence on the worldwide climate system. According to oceanographers, the cold La Niña water acts like a boulder in a stream, steering the planet's prevailing winds and changing the course of storms that are born over the ocean. Equally important to North America's winter weather is the very large area of unusually warm Western Pacific ocean. Although the appearance of this feature is not fully understood or anticipated, it is adding energy to the winter storms coming out of the North Pacific which is fueling the very volatile weather over the continental U.S. In this image, the white areas show the sea surface is between 14 and 32 centimeters (6 to 13 inches) above normal; in the red areas, it's about 10 centimeters (4 inches) above normal. The green areas indicate normal conditions. The purple areas are 14 to 18 centimeters (6 to 7 inches) below normal and the blue areas are 5 to 13 centimeters (2 to 5 inches) below normal.
For more information, please visit the TOPEX/Poseidon project web page at http://topex-www.jpl.nasa.gov