Who is El Niño?



It is a curious story, about a phenomenon we first welcomed as a blessing but now view with dismay, if not horror [Philander, 1998]. We named it El Niño for the child Jesus, provided it with relatives—La Niña and ENSO—and are devoting innumerable studies to the description and idealization of this family. These scriptures provide such a broad spectrum of historical, cultural, and scientific perspectives that there is now confusion about the identity of El Niño. Trenberth [1997] summarizes the situation as follows.

The atmospheric component tied to El Niño is termed the “Southern Oscillation.” Scientists often call the phenomenon where the atmosphere and ocean collaborate ENSO, short for El Niño-Southern Oscillation. El Niño then corresponds to the warm phase of ENSO. The opposite “La Niña” (“the girl” in Spanish) phase consists of a basinwide cooling of the tropical Pacific and thus the cold phase of ENSO. However, for the public, the term for the whole phenomenon is “El Niño.”