GRE Reading Comprehension
The recent, apparently successful prediction by mathematical models of an appearance of El Nino-the warm ocean current that periodically develops along the Pacific coast of South America has excited researchers. Jacob Bjerknes pointed out over 20 years ago how winds might create either abnormally warm or abnormally cold water in the eastern equatorial Pacific. Nonetheless, until the development of – the models no one could explain why conditions should regularly shift from one to the other, as happens in the periodic oscillations between appearances of the warm El Nino and the cold so-called anti-El Nino. The answer, at least if the current model that links the behavior of the ocean to that of the atmosphere is correct, is to be found in the ocean.
It has long been known that during an El Nino, two conditions exist: (1) unusually warm water extends along the eastern Pacific, principally along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, and (2) winds blow from the west into the warmer air rising over the warm water in the east. These winds tend to create a feedback mechanism by driving the warmer surface water into a "pile" that blocks the normal upwelling of deeper, cold water in the east and further warms the eastern water, thus strengthening- the wind still more. The contribution of the model is to show that the winds of an El Nino, which raise sea level in the east, simultaneously send a signal to the west lowering sea level. According to the model, that signal is generated as a negative Rossby wave, a wave of depressed, or negative, sea level, that moves westward parallel to the equator at 25 to 85 kilometers per day. Taking months to traverse the Pacific, Rossby waves march to the western boundary of the Pacific basin, which is modeled as a smooth wall but in reality consists of quite irregular island chains, such as, the Philippines and Indonesia.
When the waves meet the western boundary, they are reflected, and the model predicts that Rossby waves will be broken into numerous coastal Kelvin waves carrying the same negative sea-level signal. These eventually shoot toward the equator, and then head east- ward along the equator propelled by the rotation of the Earth at a speed of about 250 kilometers per day. When enough Kelvin waves of sufficient amplitude arrive from the western Pacific, their negative sea-level signal overcomes the feedback mechanism tending to raise the sea level, and they begin to drive the system into the opposite cold mode. This produces a gradual shift in winds, one that will eventually send positive sea-level Rossby waves westward, waves that will eventually return as cold cycle-ending Positive Kelvin waves, beginning another warming cycle.
The primary function of the passage as a whole is to
- A introduce a new explanation of a physical phenomenon
- B explain the difference between two related physical phenomena
- C illustrate the limitations of applying mathematics to complicated physical phenomena
- D indicate the direction that research into a a particular physical phenomenon should take
- E clarify the differences between an old explanation of a physical phenomenon and a new model of it
Correct Answer: A