Predicting El Niño


  • Elaine Friebele


In 1982, scientists neither predicted nor recognized the beginning of the most intense El Niño of the century, which caused thousands of deaths and more than $13 billion in damage. But warned that 1986 and 1987 would be wet years, Peruvian farmers avoided costly crop losses by planting rice instead of cotton.

With the establishment of the new International Research Institute last month, more potential climate-related disasters will likely be averted. The new institute combines the scientists and resources of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will provide $18 million over 3 years in a cooperative agreement to establish the institute. Advances in ocean observation systems and new capabilities in computer models for predicting the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) prompted the idea for the new institute. ENSO, a natural global climate cycle occurring irregularly over several years, causes a shift in ocean currents in the tropical Pacific and alters global wind and rainfall patterns.