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Knowing El Niño

There was no getting away from El Niño this year -- in newspapers and magazines, on TV, or anytime you walked out the door. But if you think you know all about it, you're wrong, says Dr. Michael Glantz, who's been studying the much-maligned weather phenomenon for the past quarter-century.

By Sonia Ellis

"EL NIÑO SHIFTS Earth's momentum."
    -- Science News, January 17, 1998

"El Niño's storms wreak havoc with Florida's tourist season."
    -- The New York Times, February 18, 1998

"El Niño's (achoo!) allergies."
    -- Time, March 23, 1998

"Those corrections on page A2 today are El Niño's fault."
    -- The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 1998

When I first tried to call Dr. Michael Glantz, MTE'61, G'63, Gr'70, in April, he was headed to New York City for what was his eighth El Niño-related appearance of the year. I tried e-mail; he wrote back, quickly and with characteristic understatement: " ... we can talk to see if there's something interesting to say and write about."
   Something interesting to write about? I think so. Unless you've been isolated from all printed and electronic media since last summer, it would be hard to miss the impact of the most recent El Niño. This weather phenomenon has been linked to increases in allergies, shifts in commodities, declines in tourism -- and, yes, to the rate of the Earth's rotation. Is something anomalous happening in your life? Blame it on El Niño. (See "An El Niño Primer," on the next page for the facts about the phenomenon.)
   Amid the escalating media hype, Glantz's tempered voice has injected some balance. During our conversations, he would point out that most issues have two sides: that there's bad and good in El Niño, bad and good even in all the hype.
   When it comes to an even-handed analysis of El Niño, Glantz has the advantage of a long perspective. He can trace his interest back to the mid-1970s -- right on the heels of the 1972-73 El Niño. At the time, Glantz was working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), having added a doctorate in political science to his bachelor's degree in metallurgical engineering from Penn. ("There's life after engineering," he says. "So after you get your engineering degree -- which I think is actually one of the best degrees, because people think you're smarter than you are -- then you can get into the social area.") While his own focus was droughts and famine in Africa, he started hearing stories that implicated El Niño in the collapse of the Peruvian fishing industry -- at that time the world's number-one fishing industry. Intrigued, Glantz decided to initiate a study of the social impacts of El Niño. He's been following it ever since.
   Currently, Glantz is a senior scientist with NCAR's Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, which he also directed for 18 years. In his 24 total years at NCAR, he's produced 21 books and organized more than 20 international workshops. This year he has been nominated for the Sawakawa Prize, a prestigious environmental award. He's also editing a book on environmental problems in Central Asia (in particular, on the Aral Sea crisis and the geopolitics of oil in the Caspian region) and is developing methods for forecasting how society will respond to the impacts of climate changes. "I'm not just an El Niño person," he says.
   But his name is most tightly linked to the El Niño phenomenon. His 1996 book, Currents of change: El Niño's impact on climate and society (Cambridge University Press), was recently marketed in Japan -- where 6,000 copies sold in the first three weeks -- and will be coming out in Chinese and Spanish translations soon. He's traveled to Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Australia, Japan, and Kenya to talk about El Niño. He's witnessed the rising level of fascination with El Niño events. And he's seen that the fascination hasn't gone hand-in-hand with understanding.
   You may think that the flood of attention -- the maps and statistics, the models and predictions -- all mean that we've deciphered El Niño. That's not the case. Glantz wrote recently in his Internet column "Fragilecologies": "I am afraid to say publicly that, while we know a great deal about this natural process, there is a great deal more that we still do not know. We must recognize this ... to avoid the pessimism that could ensue when we are surprised by the behavior of the next El Niño event."
   Glantz spoke with me from his office in Boulder, Colorado. The NCAR lab, on a mesa at the foot of the Rockies, is subject to the caprice of Colorado weather -- and to the extremes of El Niño, it seems, if the 22 inches of snow from last October's blizzard count as El Niño fallout. This day, though, it's a pretty and peaceful vantage point for speculations about the El Niño of 1997-98.
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