Marilyn Lane tries to shut a door as a wave rushes into her Solimar Beach, California home during a January 1998 storm, during the 1997-1998 El Niño. Photo: Alan Hagman / Los Angeles Times

By Monte Morin
28 November 2015

(Los Angeles Times) – A fog of suffocating smoke settles over the Indonesian countryside, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and triggering an environmental crisis.

In Peru, officials abandon plans to host the lucrative Dakar Rally and prepare instead for torrential rains and devastating floods.

And in Ethiopia, crops perish for lack of seasonal rain as United Nations officials warn of imminent famine.

Although many Californians hope forecasts of a "Godzilla" El Niño will deliver drought-busting rains this winter, mention of the mysterious climate phenomenon inspires dread in much of the world.

Its long-distance, or teleconnected, effects are so great that some researchers argue it doubles the risk of war in much of the Third World.

"It's a spawner of hazards everywhere," said El Niño researcher Michael "Mickey" Glantz, director of the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"Some people like to say it has positive aspects, but generally speaking it's doom and gloom," said Glantz, who operates the website "It's more damage than success."

Periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean has occurred for thousands of years, but only recently have scientists come to appreciate its global reach, or even recognize its telltale signs.

In its simplest sense, El Niño's effects are like placing a large stone in a shallow river, according to David Pierce, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. "It causes ripples that run far downstream," he said.

Normally, the hottest ocean surface temperatures on the planet are found in the western Pacific, near Indonesia. During an El Niño, however, these warm, rain-generating waters slide east, creating conditions for large storms.

This can also alter the path of powerful jet stream currents high above the Earth, disrupting seasonal weather patterns in profound ways.

Seasonal rains can fail to arrive in parts of India, Africa, and Southeast Asia, killing crops and stoking wildfires. In parts of North and South America, a succession of pounding storms can roll over the landscape, as if delivered by an atmospheric conveyor belt.

In Southern California, El Niño is best known for traffic-halting downpours, overflowing rivers and debris flows. Yet El Nino's ability to steer rain away from agricultural fields has earned it the greatest infamy.

"It's the intense drought that causes the greatest human casualties and crop devastation," said writer and historian Mike Davis, author of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. [more]

El Nino may trigger floods, famine and sickness in much of the world



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