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    Parfit, Michael. “Living with Natural Hazards.” (Order issue.)

    Suplee, Curt. “Unlocking the Climate Puzzle.” (Order issue.)

    “El Niño’s Rampage.” Millennium Moments, Order issue.)

    “Do El Niño’s Ripples Extend to Antarctica?” Earth Almanac, (Order issue.)

    “Is the Sea Warming in the Western Pacific?” Geographica, (Order issue.)

    “El Niño Brightens a Desert Landscape.” Geographica, (Order issue.)

    “A Companion for El Niño.” Geographica, (Order issue.)

    Canby, Thomas Y. “El Niño’s Ill Wind.” (Order issue.)

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    Forces of Change: A New View of Nature. 2000.

    Lawrence, Bonnie S., ed. Restless Earth. 1997.

    Agnone, John G., ed. Raging Forces: Earth in Upheaval. 1995.

    Additional Resources

    Bigg, Grant R. The Oceans and Climate. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Burroughs, William James. Weather Cycles: Real or Imaginary? Cambridge University Press.

    Diaz, Henry F. and Vera Markgraf. El Niño: Historical and Paleoclimatic Aspects of the Southern Oscillation. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Gates, David Murray. Climate Change and its Biological Consequences. Sinauer Associates, 1993.

    Geer, Ira W., ed. Glossary of Weather and Climate, With Related Oceanic and Hydrolic Terms. American Meteorological Society, 1996.

    Graedel, T.E. Atmosphere, Climate, and Change. Scientific American Library, 1995.

    Schneider, Stephen H., ed. Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather. Oxford University Press, 1996.

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  • El Niño/La Niña
    Nature’s Vicious Cycle
    By Curt Suplee Part 1 | 2 | 3

    It rose out of the tropical Pacific in late 1997, bearing more energy than a million Hiroshima bombs. By the time it had run its course eight months later, the giant El Niño of 1997-98 had deranged weather patterns around the world, killed an estimated 2,100 people, and caused at least 33 billion [U.S.] dollars in property damage.

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    Isaias Ipanaqué Silva knew none of that. All he and the other peasant farmers in the Peruvian hamlet of Chato Chico could see was that after weeks of incessant rain the adjacent Piura River had not stopped rising. The rainfall itself was no surprise. Every three to seven years, for as long as anyone could remember, the same rainfall had arrived after a pool of hot seawater the size of Canada appeared off the west coast of the Americas. The ocean would heat up right around Christmastime, so fishermen called the phenomenon El Niño, for the Christ Child. Then that titanic storm source would pour vast amounts of precipitation onto Peru’s normally arid northwestern coast.

    But few had ever seen this much rain—five or six inches a day in some places.

    Finally, on February 15, 1998, the river broke its banks. The sodden ground could hold no more, and water swept into the riverside homes of Chato Chico. The swirling torrent was first knee-deep and soon chest high. “Suddenly we were surrounded from all directions,” Ipanaqué Silva says. “It took all the little animals. Then my house just fell down completely.

    Hundreds of families splashed frantically through the muddy flood to save what they could. In most cases, says another villager, Rosa Jovera Charo, “we just grabbed clothes for the children.” Everything else—chickens and goats, pots and pans, religious icons and personal treasures—washed away. Compared with other places in Peru and around the world, the residents of Chato Chico were fairly lucky. Some were evacuated on barges, a few in helicopters, to a barren but dry refugee camp in the desert. Nearly all survived.

    That was not the case some 60 miles [100 kilometers] to the south, in a 3-acre [1.2-hectare] pocket of one-room houses called Motse outside the city of Chiclayo. “We thought that the water couldn’t come here,” says Flora Ramirez, “but we lost practically everything.” Ramirez’s neighborhood was overrun in a matter of minutes. “They strung ropes from one house to another to rescue people,” recalls Manuel Guevara Sanchez. “Some spent three days on the roof. Those who knew how to swim brought them food.” When the flood finally receded, they could begin to count the dead: ten out of a village of just 150.

    The runoff from the floods poured into the coastal Sechura Desert. Where there had been nothing but arid hardscrabble waste for 15 years, suddenly—amazingly—lay the second largest lake in Peru: 90 miles [145 kilometers] long, 20 miles [30 kilometers] wide, and ten feet [three meters] deep, with occasional parched domes of sand and clay poking up eerily from the surface.

    In other areas the water simply pooled. The mosquitoes that thrived in these places caused rampant malaria—some 30,000 cases in the Piura region alone, three times the average for its 1.5 million residents.

    Learn how wind and water drive El Niño and La Niña.


    Peru was where it all began, but El Niño’s abnormal effects on the main components of climate—sunshine, temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, cloud formation, and ocean currents—changed weather patterns across the equatorial Pacific and in turn around the globe. Indonesia and surrounding regions suffered months of drought. Forest fires burned furiously in Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaysia, forcing drivers to use their headlights at noon. The haze traveled thousands of miles to the west into the ordinarily sparkling air of the Maldive Islands, limiting visibility to half a mile [0.8 kilometer] at times.

    Temperatures reached 108°F [42°C] in Mongolia; Kenya’s rainfall was 40 inches [100 centimeters] above normal; central Europe suffered record flooding that killed 55 in Poland and 60 in the Czech Republic; and Madagascar was battered with monsoons and cyclones. In the U.S. mudslides and flash floods flattened communities from California to Mississippi, storms pounded the Gulf Coast, and tornadoes ripped Florida.

    By the time the debris settled and the collective misery was tallied, the devastation had in some respects exceeded even that of the El Niño of 1982-83, which killed 2,000 worldwide and caused about 13 billion dollars in damage.

    And that’s not the end of it. It is not uncommon for an El Niño winter to be followed by a La Niña one—where climate patterns and worldwide effects are, for the most part, the opposite of those produced by El Niño. Where there was flooding there is drought, where winter weather was abnormally mild, it turns abnormally harsh. La Niñas have followed El Niños three times in the past 15 years—after the 1982-83 event and after those of 1986-87 and 1995. Signs of another La Niña began to show up by June 1998.

    Return to top | Credits Part 1 | 2 | 3

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    Curt Suplee, a Washington Post science writer and editor, recently finished work on his book Physics in the 20th Century, to be published soon by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. He wrote “Unlocking the Climate,” in the May 1998 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

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