The Last El Niño of the Millennium — The 1997-98 Event

May 1, 1998
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzThe suggestion that the El Niño of 1997-98 could be like the El Niño of 1982-83, the biggest in a century, has raised the concern of policy makers around the globe. The devastation attributed to the 82-83 event is now seen as possibly recurring with the current event. As a result, El Niño forecasters and researchers in general have been suggesting that there will be severe drought in Australia, Central America, the Indian sub-continent, Ethiopia, northeast Brazil, the southern Philippines, and southern Africa, along with floods in northern Peru, the Galapagos Islands, central Chile, and southern Brazil.

In North America researchers suggested that there would be an increased likelihood of a hot, dry winter in the Pacific Northwest, a mild, wet winter in the Northeast, a wet, cool winter in the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, and a sharp reduction in the number of hurricanes in year zero (the year in which an El Niño event begins — 1997). These have been considered the regions of strong (robust) teleconnections of climate anomalies linked to changes in Pacific sea surface temperatures. Other parts of North America may be influenced directly or indirectly by such oceanic changes, but those impacts have been difficult to identify.

Once this El Niño began to be viewed as a big event (although not necessarily an extraordinary one) in June 1997, considerable attention focused on southern California. This region was plagued in 1982-83 with severe rains, coastal storms, flooding and mudslides. TV images played up the destruction in this region, showing coastal buildings being battered and destroyed by wave action and cliffside houses sliding into the Pacific ocean.

It became clear, after several months of media interest in El Niño and its potential impacts, that horror stories of potential impacts increased, as did the researchers' statements about the likelihood of severe impacts in various regions around the globe, accompanied by an increasing number of suggestions about potential impacts in specific seasons, months, locations, and timing. Even the kinds of storms that one might expect in a given region during an El Niño event received attention. For example, it was suggested that there would likely be a few major "blockbuster" snowstorms during the winter of 1997-98 in the Rocky Mountains. The February killer tornadoes in Central Florida were blamed on El Niño by several weather "experts." So too was the devastating ice storm in the northeastern US and eastern Canada, especially Quebec.

How much of this reportage is hype? Is El Niño really something that the US public and policy makers should be worried about? Are researchers telling us how bad it can be (or was) in order to generate more funding for their research or for operational forecasting activities?

The Issue of HYPE

There are two ways to look at what we call hype. I believe "hype" can be viewed in a positive light or in a negative one. Negatively speaking, one could argue that the sharp increase in media coverage of El Niño, such as the nightly coverage called "El Niño Watch" on CBS's Dan Rather newscast, has not really been warranted. Weather anomalies occur around the globe every year, whether or not an El Niño is in progress. Not all adverse weather or climate impacts occurring in an El Niño year should be blamed on El Niño, as has recently been done. Some skeptics have suggested that the end of 1997 was a slow news period, and so there was a focus on a naturally occurring process involving the interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean that has been going on for centuries, if not millennia. Some have even suggested that the media have created the hysteria over the possible impacts of the 1997-98 El Niño with their banner headlines and scare stories, starting as early as September 1997. In generating such headlines the media have had the researchers and some forecasters as willing if not unwitting partners in their scare stories.

The positive side of "hype" relates to the fact that the 1997-98 El Niño turned out to have been a big one. It is of the order of magnitude of the 1982-83 event. Its impacts will likely be big ... and costly, even more costly than official damage numbers might suggest. Even if the science has not advanced enough in the past two decades to tell us with great confidence where those specific El Niño impacts will occur, its research findings can suggest for some (not all) locations likely adverse impacts with enough lead time for people, industries, and governments to take precautionary actions to mitigate if not avoid El Niño's worst, most devastating and debilitating impacts. In other words, hype (the plethora of stories about a phenomenon previously obscure to the public) has generated a level of awareness of El Niño among the lay public, the media, and government leaders worldwide that ensures they will take notice of El Niño forecasts in future decades.

The Issue of HOPE

In the 1970s the research community took notice of the El Niño phenomenon as one that can affect marine resources and trade. The events in the 1980s generated awareness and concern about El Niño's impacts on weather anomalies and ecosystems around the world. The 1990s is the decade in which potential users became interested in droves in the El Niño phenomenon and in the use of information about it in their decision making processes.

A few years ago I published an article called "Forecasting El Niño: Science's Gift to the 21stCentury." I still believe that there is great value as yet untapped in knowing more than we currently do about El Niño. There is considerable information available about it and its impacts that can be viewed as reliable. Fore example, the likelihood of drought in Indonesia appears high during El Niño (warm events) and of good rains during La Niña (or cold events). This is historical information, though not without uncertainty, that can be used to take proactive measures to alleviate the likely drought-related impacts on agriculture, electric power generation, and water resources in general. Forecasts of El Niño are value added to what we already know. The same can be said for other regions around the globe where "teleconnections" are considered to be rather strong.

To date, just about every El Niño has surprised the research community in some way. However, after each event yet another piece of the El Niño puzzle is put in place. Researchers gain the confidence to suggest that they now understand the phenomenon well enough to forecast it several months to a year in advance, only to be surprised by some aspect of the next El Niño. The reality is that we have only been studying El Niño as a basin-wide phenomenon since the mid-1970s and have not yet witnessed all the ways in which it can develop; nor have we seen all the combinations of impacts worldwide that could occur with the different types of El Niño events.

Unlike with climate change research, there is little in the way of divisive politics involved in forecasting El Niño. Everyone wants a better El Niño forecast. While the researchers are improving their own knowledge and understanding of El Niño, societies must learn how to better use the El Niño information that they already have in hand.

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