A backward glance
In the lingo of climatologists, the 1997-98 El Niño is in its "decay phase." That means this El Niño probably has run its course. So it's time to start compiling statistics. How big was El Niño? Who was hit? And how bad was the damage?
A good place to start looking is El Niño's birthplace, the equatorial Pacific Ocean. You can be sure that El Niño will have left its mark along the eastern and western boundaries: from northern Peru and southern Ecuador on one side, to Australia and Indonesia on the other. "That's the field of action," says Glantz. "Whenever there is an El Niño, those areas are impacted right away."
This time it was a big -- and hot -- field of action. The warm Pacific waters that characterize El Niño ended up covering an area one-and-a-half times as big as the continental United States. The sea surface temperatures climbed to as high as 9 degrees celsius above average along the Peruvian coast. El Niños range in their intensity from weak to moderate to strong to extraordinary. According to Glantz, "This one was extraordinary ... It developed earlier than expected, stayed strong longer than expected, grew bigger than expected, and was hotter than expected."
No surprise, then, that lands to the east and west were hit hard. Between December 1997 and February 1998, more than 80 people were killed in Peru by flooding, mud slides, and bacterial disease. Flash floods prompted the evacuation of more than 20,000 people in Ecuador. In Indonesia, severe drought helped fuel epic forest fires -- the worst in 50 years. And in Australia: drought, too, although enough rain eventually fell at the right time to save the wheat harvest.
Farther afield, El Niño drenched U.S. coastlines to the west and south with rainstorms and floods. Thirty-foot waves pounded the California coast in February; as of March, more than 50 people had died in what some meteorologists considered El Niño-related storms in Florida, with rainfall in some parts of the state twice as high as normal. Crops in both states turned to rot. The Northeast, though, will look back on the 1997-98 El Niño with kinder eyes, after a surprisingly mild winter: January temperatures in New York City, for example, were 8 degrees farenheit higher than usual.
There were also record-breaking ice storms in northern New England and eastern Canada, and record snowfall in the Northwest. Was El Niño responsible for all those weather oddities as well? (See "True or False? How well do you know El Niño?") Glantz calls that a gray area. "Some impacts are clear and obvious, like the floods in California," he says. "Others are clearly not linked, like the floods in Poland in the summer. Was the ice storm El Niño? Well, some people say yes, some say no. I think it will take more research to sort that out."
With the political scientist's hat firmly on his head, Glantz suggests that there's another perspective on this problem of sorting out El Niño's impacts. Consider this December 1997 story from Insight on the News: with predictions from weather modelers, at the time, that rainfall in certain areas could be up to 300 percent above normal because of El Niño, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) sold flood insurance at record rates under a taxpayer-subsidized program. "It's in an agency's interest to say everything was [caused by] El Niño," Glantz points out, "but is it in society's interest to believe them?"
What to believe; that's a thorny question, especially in the dense thicket of media frenzy. The obsession with El Niño got so intense that you could even find stories in the media about the media coverage -- like "El hype-o" in Forbes. "Yes, the media did a lot of hype," Glantz agrees. "But Š there is good hype and bad hype. The bad hype is something like a government agency saying 'El Niño is bad, give me more money for science,' kind of using El Niño for self-gain. I think bad hype is like Dan Rather and CBS doing El Niño Watch. Almost every night he had to find something [to talk about]; that probably actually led at first to education and awareness, and later to cynicism."
So what kind of hype could be good? In Glantz's view, "The good hype is the stuff that results in increased awareness: society now understands the phenomenon a little better, and they're more ready for it. Even the advertisements [on television], I think some of them were good hype; they were funny. Like: 'Buy a four-wheel drive, El Niño's coming,' or 'Buy firewood, because El Niño is going to be here.' That's just fun hype."
"Fun" and "good" weren't words I'd have linked in any way with El Niño. But here's a fact you probably haven't heard much about on television and in newspapers: El Niño wasn't all bad. "There are positive sides to this," says Glantz. "You just have to search for them." One example: an El Niño event seems to mean fewer hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. During the 1997 El Niño year, Glantz points out, we did not have a devastating blockbuster hurricane.
In the Northeast, the warm winter meant lowered heating bills. The building industry benefited because the ground was soft enough for digging. What's more, the Energy Information Administration said that U.S. gasoline prices could be 10 cents lower this year, largely because of those unusually high temperatures. And while El Niño devastated Peru's fishing industry, with the warmer water driving out the anchovies, shrimp farmers in Peru and Ecuador actually found those waters packed with many more wild shrimp larvae.
One thing is for certain: the media has made El Niño a household name. Glantz speculates, "I think that the last big El Niño of 1982-83 was the El Niño of the scientists; that's what turned on the scientists. The 1997-98 El Niño turned on society, people, users of information. With this El Niño, all of a sudden, for the first time, they're starting to take El Niño seriously." And starting to wonder when it might happen again.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/1/98