Knowing El Niño

El NiñoLa Niña Cover Picture1In early 1998, I was interviewed about the 1997-98 El Niño for an article in the Pennsylvania Gazette (a University of Pennsylvania Publication for Alumni and others). My brother in New England sent the article based on that interview to me recently. I had forgotten about it till now. I re-read it and think it might be interesting, maybe even relevant, to today’s concerns about the major El Niño event in progress now. The interview took place in February or March, and so matches the timing of the year of the current El Niño. Much of what was said then about forecasting and impacts still applies today. I hope you find it to be of some interest.

January 4, 2016

Mickey Glantz, the Consortium for Capacity Building, INSTAAR, University of Colorado []

Sonia Ellis, EAS’86, is a freelance writer on science and technology who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her profile of Associate Professor of Bioengineering Ken Foster appeared in the February Gazette. (

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

June, 1998

“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.

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 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.


Eyeing the future
Predicting the next El Niño should be easy, right? After all, we knew this one was coming. Not exactly, says Glantz. “There are a lot of forecast models out there but I would argue that [the forecasters] didn’t really get it. You’ll probably be reading in the future that they forecast this El Niño in December of 1996, or even November, but they didn’t really get it until March of 1997. Actually [at that point] the sea-surface temperatures were warming, and you could see it from the satellites.
“But that’s the same time that the Peruvian fisherman — who had no access to computer models, no Internet capability, maybe even didn’t have a television — stuck his hand in the water and said it’s getting warm, something is going on. So here’s the question I’ve been asking now: Did they really forecast this El Niño? Because El Niños can range from weak to extraordinary. This one was extraordinary. And nobody forecast an extraordinary event. Even in June of 1997, when they said this was going to be a big El Niño, they still didn’t know how big it was going to be.”
Scientists’ ability to monitor El Niño — to follow its developments from day to day — has gotten to be excellent, Glantz says. “But I would say that forecasting it still has a long way to go.”
Why the difficulty in predicting the event? For this most recent El Niño, scientists were caught off guard. The waters in the Pacific started to heat up earlier and faster than during other El Niños in recent years. Though all El Niños seem to go through the same phases from onset to decay each one is capable of throwing a curve. “The truth of the matter is,” says Glantz, “we didn’t really know about El Niño’s global implications until the late 1960s. We started to monitor it in the mid-1980s. So we really haven’t seen all the kinds of El Niños that can develop, and all the kinds of impacts they can have.”
There have, of course, been some success stories. One pair of researchers used their computer model early in 1986 to successfully forecast the onset of the 1986-87 El Niño. And while the forecast of the 1997-98 El Niño phenomenon wasn’t particularly good, some of the projections about its possible impacts were good. “We knew California was going to get slammed,” says Glantz. “And there was a good chance that the Gulf states were going to get hit. So people were able to do things to protect themselves.” Californians, for example, repaired roofs and cleaned out irrigation ditches to prepare for the onslaught of heavy rains.
That’s the importance of an accurate and early forecast: to lessen El Niño’s impact by helping society prepare for the event. The research community is beginning to hope that the onset of future El Niños will be predicted four to 12 months in advance. Glantz feels that the potential uses of that information are almost limitless. He points to a wide range of human activities that could benefit: improving agricultural production, for example, or making better trade deals for commodities, or mitigating the many natural hazards that go hand-in-hand with El Niño.
The El Niño of 1997-98, Glantz concludes, was a dry run. “It’s the next El Niño that will test how much we’ve learned about El Niño — and how to deal with it.”


Sonia Ellis, EAS’86, is a freelance writer on science and technology who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her profile of Associate Professor of Bioengineering Ken Foster appeared in the February Gazette. (


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