El Niño

El Niño

El Niño

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 28 1997 3:30 AM

El Niño

Perfect weather for a conspiracy.

Illustration by Michael Sloan

Perhaps every era gets the weather it deserves. Drought and dust storms coincided with the Great Depression. Earth's weather was unusually tranquil during the tranquil '50s, unusually chaotic during the chaotic '70s. So it's fitting that El Niño should return this fall, its third visit of the decade. El Niño is weather for the '90s, weather for an age of conspiracy theories.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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As anyone who's tuned in a weather forecast this month knows, "El Niño"--"the child," as in "the Christ child"--was so named by Peruvian fishermen who noticed the warming of the waters of the eastern Pacific around Christmastime. This Christ child is a monster. El Niño, officially known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), works like this: Every three to eight years, for some inexplicable reason, the trade winds that usually blow west from South America to Australia subside. As a result, the warm waters of the western Pacific--a pool the size of Canada--drift east toward South America. The result: worldwide weather chaos. (El Niño is part of a larger cycle. Periodically, the conditions that produce El Niño act in reverse. This produces La Niña, which causes different, but equally freaky, global weather conditions.)

Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are holding emergency hearings about the new El Niño, and the media are covering it obsessively. There is good reason to worry. The eastern Pacific has heated faster this year than at any time in recorded history. El Niño '97 promises to be the most brutal climatic event of the century, surpassing even El Niño '82-'83, which killed thousands and caused $13 billion in damage.

El Niño is the Trilateral Commission of earth science, the Bilderberg Group of climatology. It explains everything. The difference between El Niño and the Trilats: El Niño really does explain everything. Hollywood's disaster-movie villains--Dante's Peak, the twisters, the Titanic iceberg--are pikers next to El Niño. Here is a partial list of events that El Niño can be blamed for (at least partially): the ongoing drought in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea; forest fires in Indonesia; famine in North Korea; the appearance of hurricanes along the Pacific coast of the United States; the disappearance of hurricanes along the Atlantic Coast of the United States; a mild winter in the Northeast, a harsh winter in the Southeast, the failure of the fish harvest in South America. El Niño seems to determine the corn production of Zimbabwe, the coffee production of Sumatra, and the cocoa production of the Ivory Coast. It appears to spark epidemics of encephalitis, cholera, hantavirus, bubonic plague, rattlesnake attacks, and shark attacks. It could even influence immigration patterns in the Southwestern United States. (How? Most migration to the Southwest has occurred in the past 20 years, a period of frequent El Niños. El Niños bring lots of rain to the region, and if they subside, there may be too little water to sustain the Sun Belt.)

Illustration by Michael Sloan

El Niño, in fact, is a conspiracy so immense that it even explains the other weather conspiracy--namely, the jet stream. The warm, moist El Niño air causes the jet stream to split as it flows eastward over North America. One arm dips south, giving the Gulf Coast a wet winter. The other stays in Canada. The Northeast is thus spared the jet stream's Arctic blasts, and enjoys a lovely winter.

Despite implicating El Niño in all these varied weather crimes, scientists know surprisingly little about it. This year's El Niño is the first major one to have been forecast. Before El Niño was identified, weather consisted of a series of little mysteries: Why is there a thunderstorm? Why a drought? Those mysteries have been solved (sort of), but they have been supplanted by a much bigger one: What is El Niño? Weather mavens don't understand why El Niño begins. They don't know why it is occurring more frequently: It used to arrive every five to eight years; recently it's been coming every three to five years. Scientists are befuddled about its relationship (if any) to global warming: Some say global warming is making El Niño more severe; others say El Niño is making global warming more severe. (El Niño is a darling of greenhouse skeptics because it shows how mighty Mother Nature is compared with man. If El Niño, a natural phenomenon we don't understand and can't control, can shift worldwide temperatures and rainfall dramatically, we should hesitate before blaming our own carbon dioxide emissions for the world's ills.)

There is one other reason why El Niño is a fitting weather pattern for the age: On balance, it rewards America at the expense of the rest of the world. In Africa, Australia, India, and Southeast Asia, El Niño parches land, devastates crops, and causes famine. About 300,000 people in Papua New Guinea are starving because of the '97 El Niño. In South America, El Niño destroys the fishing industry: Peru's economy shrank 5 percent during the '82-'83 El Niño. It's true that El Niño afflicts the West and Gulf Coasts with nasty winters, and that it decimates the salmon population. But fewer hurricanes will strike the Atlantic coast this year, fewer tornadoes will touch down in the Midwest, and more rain will fall on the Southwest. Mild winters in the North and East will save billions on heating bills. Thanks to the northward migration of Pacific marlin, California sport fishermen will have an annusmirabilis. And as for the surfing, it will be awesome.