El Niño's Alter Ego
"Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." —Mark Twain
El Niño has revolutionized conversations about the weather. No longer banal small talk, the weather has become the subject of high drama and preternatural powers. Everyone is talking about El Niño, and each story seems more odd and disastrous than the next:
- Peru—the country that gave El Niño its name—will be hit with record floods and snow this winter.
- Papua New Guinea is suffering the worst drought in fifty years and a million people may face starvation.
- Japan may have to host a snowless Winter Olympics in February.
- Tropical fish have appeared in the normally frigid waters off Oregon.
- The famous beaches of Rio, Brazil, Ipanema and Copacabana, have shrunk as much as 160 feet in some places.
- An unnatural surplus of squid have overrun the waters of California.
- Drought in Colombia is threatening the coca crop, used to produce cocaine; El Niño may be the most effective deterrent to the drug cartels.
- In Guyana, a magistrate has blamed El Niño for the recent surge in domestic violence.
- Toxic algae is expected to contaminate Australia's rivers and drinking water.
- In the past, El Niño has been linked to cyclones, hurricanes, dust storms, flooding, drought, famine, brush fires, infestations of fleas, rodents, and rattlesnakes, and outbreaks of encephalitis, malaria, and cholera, among other calamaties.
This nefarious atmospheric scourge will no doubt be made to take the blame for stock market plunges, cellulite, and poor SAT scores. It is just a matter of time before criminal courts are presented with the "El Niño Defense."
Equal Time for La Niña
The obsession with El Niño has overshadowed its lesser known counterpart, La Niña, which is very capable of wreaking havoc of its own. La Niña creates nearly opposite conditions from El Niño: instead of warm temperatures in the Pacific, the water turns unusually cold and the atmospheric pressure anomalies are the reverse of El Niño. Where El Niño might create a hot and dry spell, La Niña is likely to cause a cool and wet climate. There has been only one significant La Niña in the past 20 years (1988) compared to a slew of hellish El Niños1, a fact that has been no help in boosting La Niña's low profile. Although El Niño was named more than a century ago in 18952, the existence of La Niña was only acknowledged in the past few years. It has also been saddled with such uninspiring names as "anti-El Niño," and "El Viejo" (old man), but now "La Niña" is definitely the preferred term. Since a La Niña episode often follows El Niño, it is sure to get more press next year once we feel its cold blast and watch its aberrant manipulation of nature.
1. El Niño and La Niña years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association:
El Niño: 1877, 1880, 1884, 1891, 1896, 1899, 1902, 1904, 1911, 1913, 1918, 1923, 1925, 1930, 1932, 1939, 1951, 1953, 1965, 1969, 1972, 1976, 1982 (the most severe thus far), and 1986
La Niña: 1886, 1889, 1892, 1903, 1906, 1908, 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1931, 1938, 1942, 1949, 1954, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1975, and 1988 (the most severe thus far).
2. El Niño translates as "the little boy" in Spanish, meaning the Christ Child, and it received its name from Peruvian and Ecuadorian fishermen who detected a warm ocean current around Christmas that caused torrential rains and major disruptions in fishing. Scientists usually refer to it as ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation). The "SO" refers to the oscillation of air pressure in the South Pacific. La Niña means "the little girl."