El Niño

Updated July 12, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

The climatic phenomenon called El Niño involves the periodic warming of the waters of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean along with a weakening of the equatorial trade winds. It's a naturally recurring event that causes a large mass of warm water, normally situated off Australia's coast, to move east toward South America.

The warm water displaces the cold Humboldt Current that flows north along the coast of Chile and Peru. The name was coined by Peruvian fishermen in Spanish for “the Child” when the effects of warm El Niño water were noticed around Christmas in the late 1980s. A reciprocal phase of strong trade winds and cooler eastern Pacific waters has been named “La Niña” (the little girl).

The effects of El Niño are felt worldwide in changing weather patterns and in the resulting economic consequences. International scientists say meteorological and oceanographic readings from the tropical Pacific during the summer of 1997 indicated the beginning of an El Niño that could equal or exceed this century's strongest one, which took place in 1982–83. That El Niño caused approximately $13 billion in damages around the world. Water temperatures off the coast of South America peaked at 14 degrees above normal. Fifteen-hundred deaths were blamed on that El Niño episode. General effects include droughts in Latin America, Africa, and Australia, and extraordinary typhoons in Polynesia. In the United States, severe winter storms usually occur in California and the Gulf States during El Niño conditions.

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