Romancing El Niño

October 26, 1999
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzWhen I was just starting out as a young researcher interested in the interactions between human activities and climate variability from one year to the next, I stumbled across an obscure (at that time) process that has captured my attention ever since. The process was referred to simply as El Niño. Today, many people have become enamored of this phenomenon, the result of air-sea interaction in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Some science writers have referred to that interaction poetically as a "dance" between the ocean and the atmosphere. Reviewing todayís newspaper headlines, one would hardly remember that three decades ago, no one but a few scientists were interested in this dance or its impacts.

Just a couple of years ago, relatively few people had any strong feeling about why they should consider, let alone care about, forecasts of El Niño when they make decisions that could be affected by changes in seasonal climate. Of those places among the least concerned about El Niño or its potential wrath were the islands of the North and South Pacific. They knew of cyclones and floods, droughts, and fires, along with occasional outbreaks of disease, but they viewed these as random acts of nature or of God. In 1997, all that changed drastically.

At an international workshop in Fiji in mid-October 1999 organized by SOPAC (a Pacific regional geoscience organization), people from national weather bureaus, water management agencies, natural disaster programs and regional organizations came together to review what climate-related impacts had happened in their countries during the 1997-98 El Niño.

Stamp of FijiThey came from what are collectively referred to as small island developing states in the North and South Pacific. To be quite honest I had not been aware of several of them, having focused much of my attention on sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The countries of which I had heard, I had learned about by collecting stamps as a kid in the 1950s — Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, the Solomons. And then there are those I had not heard of till recently — Vanuatu, Niue, Kiribati [pronounced Kiri-bahs], Tuvalu.

For much of the 1990s, policy makers from these islands have also been concerned about global warming because many of the islands are at or near sea level in height. If the climate were to heat up, as scientists have been suggesting, then they would be at risk to increasingly damaging storm surges, as well as sea level rise. In fact, one of Kiribatiís uninhabited atolls has already disappeared below the seaís surface.

The people at the workshop openly acknowledged that they had only begun to consider El Niño as a result of the forecast of an intense El Niño for 1997-98. The agencies involved in monitoring sea surface changes in the tropical Pacific, along with the media and groups modeling and forecasting El Niño, began to claim that the looming El Niño would rival the intensity of the major 1982-83 event, which for the past 15 years had been referred to as the "El Niño of the Century".

During El Niño events, almost all the Pacific islands suffer from drought and, as a result, water shortages are highly likely to follow. Water is a scarce commodity in these island nations even under "normal" conditions (and it is growing scarcer). Expanding population, combined with agricultural and industrial growth, are increasing the pressure on limited fresh-water supplies. So, now El Niño has become synonymous with drought in the North and South Pacific island states. The only exception is Kiribati, which receives considerable rain during El Niño and suffers drought during La Niña events.

The islands are also subjected to cyclones (again, Kiribati is an exception as it straddles the equator), flash floods, severe wind, droughts and wildfires; it is possible for all of these to occur in the same year! So, disaster managers have the challenge of preparing for a range of potentially overlapping climate anomalies but with only minimal available resources. Some of these islands can be affected by a passing cyclone, which brings flooding, providing temporary relief from an El Niño-related drought, and wind damage. Often, the international community has to be called upon for support.

Disaster managers in this region clearly have their hands full. This has always been the case, even before they became aware of El Niño and La Niña. What is different now is that the onset of drought or flood can be linked to the ENSO cycle. Therefore, El Niño and La Niña forecasts can convert disaster responses from reaction to pro-action. Based on the adage that "forewarned is fore-armed", disaster managers in these island nations can prepare their countries to reduce the damage of El Niño-related adverse impacts. SOPAC's disaster mitigation advisor, Atu Kaloumaira, said that "It is encouraging that actions one can take still remain simple and familiar. The benefit comes from timely application. We are hopefully expectant that in the next El Niño we will be ready and will reduce suffering."

Without question, the 1997-98 event generated a step-like jump in awareness, not just in this region but everywhere. By the time first El Niño of the 21st century rolls around in a few years, there will be numerous El Niño experts within the Pacific region. In addition to the numerous workshops and conferences on the topic, the Internet can help a great deal. With the media hype about the onset of an intense El Niño in mid-1997 came an explosion of websites and chat groups devoted to the topic. Now, equipped with Internet access, ordinary citizens along with regional scientists and resource managers can access El Niño information of all kinds — and in real time. They can see raw information that has been downloaded from satellites, read analyses of that data, or track its development vicariously through media stories.

The "romancing" part of the story stems from the fact that, after 25 years of activities to encourage researchers to use El Niño information (including forecasts), researchers and government agencies around the globe are finally starting to make good use it. They want to know more about the strengths and weaknesses in using El Niño information, as well as its level of reliability and accuracy. They are beginning to make requests to forecasters, telling them about the kinds of information they need and when they need it. In my travels around the globe — riding in taxis, chatting with shop keepers, waiters, and students, among others — I have seen that, in the short time span of a few months in 1997, El Niño has become part of the publicís vocabulary. Everyone wants to know when the next event can be expected.

All this is good news. Great news, in fact. In 1994 I wrote an article called "Forecasting El Niño: Scienceís Gift to the 21st Century". Then came the onset of the 1997-98 El Niño. The forecasters missed forecasting the event and, later, its intensity. Colleagues chided me about the title, asking if I still believed it to be a gift to the next century.

In a sense, I no longer believed it. If I could (with hindsight) change one word in the title, I would change "to" the 21st century to "in" the 21st century. In another sense, though, I would stick with the original title. Why? Because, in the last few months of the 20th Century, there has been ample evidence to support the feeling that awareness of, and interest in, El Niño has finally taken hold in the minds of the public and government representatives. While the 1982-83 event was an "event of the scientists" (having sparked their interest in the phenomenon), the 1997-98 event could be considered the "El Niño of the users" (having sparked interest in the use of El Niño information, including forecasts).

If the level of interest expressed in the SOPAC (South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission) conference is any indicator of a new-found concern about El Niño, then scientists in the 20th century have given an important gift to future generations in the 21st century.

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