You say "poh-tay-to" and I say "poh-tah-to."
You say "El Niño" and I say "interannual changes
in the sea surface temperature in the tropical
Pacific Ocean. "
Oh, let's call the whole thing off!

Michael H. Glantz
18 August

You say "poh-tay-to" and I say "poh-tah-to." You say "El Niño" and I say "interannual changes in the sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean. " Oh, let's call the whole thing off!

El Niño was an unknown natural phenomenon until the early 1970s, at least as far as the general public and most scientists were concerned. Since the early 1970s, when a significant El Niño event adversely affected the Peruvian economy, the ripples around the globe from the event reached as faraway as the consumers in Japan , Europe and the USA. An increasing number of scientists since the 1972-73 El Niño have been attracted to the science of El Niño and to the study of its impacts on rainfall and temperature in regions around the globe. Changes in regional rainfall and temperature in turn had impacts on ecosystems and societies. There was a sharp increase in that interest with the impacts of “The El Niño of the Century”, the 1982-83 El Niño. This increase was further heightened with the next "El Niño of the Century" in 1997-98.

Personally, I consider the '72-73 El Niño as the El Niño of the scientists, the 1982-83 event as the El Niño of the governments and the 1997-98 El Niño as the El Niño of the public.

In the early 1980s, two scientists developed the now well used acronym, ENSO, a combination of two processes: (1) changes in sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean along the equator and (2) changes in sea level pressure (representing the atmospheric component) across the tropical Pacific called the Southern Oscillation. In the late 1980s an oceanographer popularized the label La Niña, as a quick reference to the so-called cold phase in sea surface temperatures that recur in the central Pacific following an El Niño (referred to sometimes as a warm event): some have referred to La Nina as El Niño's sister, its mellow twin, or its opposite.El Viejo was used during the 1980s but has simply not gotten any traction.The name anti-El Niño was used for a while in the late 1970s for the cold phase, but was dropped for lots of reasons: for example, if El Niño is named after the Baby Jesus, then anti-El Niño is the anti-Christ!

The fact of the matter is that the scientific community embarked wittingly or unwittingly on a mission to make El Niño a household word as a way to warn people and governments, as well as educate the public, about the consequences for societies and for managed (e.g., agriculture, fisheries) and unmanaged ecosystems (e.g., coral reefs, forests), and this has worked as evidenced by the media response to the 1997-98 El Niño.

After a few decades of relentless references to El Niño and more recently to La Niña by the media and by scientific researchers interviewed by the media, the advocates for generating awareness about and name recognition of El Niño can claim an overwhelming success. What that means is that people know the name “El Niño” even if they do not yet understand what the physical nature of it is. They are aware of potential impacts, global as well as national. The media loves El Niño, because it makes for great banner-type headlines: it has a shock value to the reader.

After 30 or so years branding the air-sea interactions in the tropical Pacific with the label El Niño, scientists want to replace this term with a true picture of what the term El Niño really refers to: “interannual changes in sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific.” In essence what they are saying is that “Now that we have your attention folks, we want to change the game plan.”

It is true that El Niño --- the phrase --- does not really capture what the process is. Originally it referred to an oceanic current anomaly that occurred every season off the coast of Peru and Ecuador. Later it was found that the phenomenon extended to much of the tropical Pacific Basin. In addition El Niño's impacts do not always occur with each event and must be expressed in probability terms, probability terms that the public tends to misunderstand. Scientists understand probabilities, as do sophisticated users of “El Niño” information.

For example, El Niño is part of a quasi-periodic oscillation, meaning that it has no regular periodicity. Events can recur any time from 2 to 10 years apart. They come in different sizes, intensities and cause different sets of worldwide impacts. They can compete with other (normal) variations in the weather and so they may or may not cause similar impacts in the same place in consecutive events of similar magnitude.

El Niño occurs about a quarter of the time, La Nina another quarter and “neutral” a bit less than half the time. What then is the scientific community to do? And what then is the public to do if the scientists are not agreeing on various aspects of El Niño?


Putting El Niño back in the variability box

Today, some researchers want to come up with a phrase that more accurately represents what we now call the ENSO cycle. In reality, El Niño is another form of climate-related variability and the process has a degree of forecast potential for the event as well as for its foreseeable impacts. Hence, they want to get the community to stop using the words El Niño or La Niña (and to stop using warm or cold event as well) in order to identify a new, more representative descriptor of the air-sea interactions in the tropical Pacific. This campaign is not just for the public. It is for researchers as well as they too need to be re-educated about how best to talk about the state of tropical Pacific air-sea interactions.

A workshop is being organized in 2008, so that scientists can discuss how best to capture in a brief statement these physical processes in the air and in the sea. The ultimate goal is to develop a widely accepted way to talk about this phenomenon known as El Niño to the general public, decision makers and the media.

Yet, the process of de-branding a physical process (for example, getting rid of El Niño) and putting in its place a different brand (yet to be chosen by scientific consensus) is not an easy task. It may even be impossible. Why not accept the fact that there are scores of El Niño definitions designed to fit the needs of different societal interests? This would be similar to the way we treat the concept of drought, which means different things to different people. When these terms are used, the context in which they are used needs to be made explicit. Look up most words in the dictionary and you will find that a word can have several different meanings. It is the context in which it is used that identifies its use.

Discussing definitions of popular concepts for the sake of clarification can turn into a fruitless task. Take the example of the “Greenhouse Effect.” The phrase is not an accurate representation of the Earth's atmosphere but when people hear it mentioned, they have a general idea of the processes at play, despite its inaccuracies. The process of trying to de-brand a popular concept may be enlightening to those involved discussing it and it may make for new friendships, as most workshops or conferences do. But, at the end of the day, the choice to be made by people on the street and people in decision-making positions will still be between “El Niño” or some phrase like “interannual changes in sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean.”

  --Michael H. Glantz

Fragilecologies Home Page | Full List of Articles