|El Niño Is Coming:
Stormy Predictions Arouse Congressional Concern
Every few years, something strange happens in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Changing ocean currents, caused by shifts in the trade winds blowing over the Pacific, result in a warming of the ocean's surface waters, particularly in the eastern Pacific. This warming alters weather patterns throughout the world, causing fierce storms and greater precipitation in the western United States and South America and corresponding drought on the other side of the Pacific.
This strange, inexorable, and irresistible event is known as El Niño. It was named by Peruvian fishermen after the Christ child because El Niño events typically peak around Christmas time. El Niño is usually paired by scientists with a related phenomenon called the Southern Oscillation, which is a variation in the pattern of the winds which blow across the Pacific. El Niño and the Southern Oscillation together are referred to as ENSO, encompassing both the atmospheric and oceanic components of El Niño events.
Scientists predict that right now we are on the brink of the most severe El Niño event in fifteen years. In an El Niño event in 1982-1983, high winds and flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage to the West Coast, disrupted commercial fishing activity, and damaged fruit and vegetable crops. A 1983 drought in the Midwest, following the wet winter, resulted in billions of dollars in crop losses.
On September 11, Dr. J. Michael Hall of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) testified before the House Science Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Environment that "August forecasts indicate that strong warm episode oceanic conditions, comparable to those observed during the 1982-83 El Niño, the most intense event of this century, will continue throughout the remainder of 1997 and into early 1998." This means that, as in 1982-83, the west coast of the United States may get pounded by storms, with other regions of the world experiencing droughts.
However, new prediction techniques have made it possible to forecast this El Niño well in advance. A representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) testified on September 11 that other federal agencies are taking advantage of NOAA's predictions. "NOAA's forecast a for El Niño are being used by the Federal Insurance Administration in its marketing efforts to promote the sale of flood insurance, especially in the California area," testified Michael J. Armstrong of FEMA.
Disasters aside, being able to predict cyclical weather patterns like El Niño can provide significant benefits. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a surfer as well as a policymaker, noted that El Niño was generating excellent surfing conditions back in his home state of California. Dr. Andrew Solow of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute expanded on Rep. Rohrabacher's observation. He explained that while El Niño creates bad weather for the West Coast, it actually results in reduced tropical storm activity in the Atlantic. In addition, because El Niño is a cycle, the periods of low crop yield which it causes are often matched by periods of high crop yields. Accurate predictions can thus not only minimize the damage caused by storms, but can also allow farmers to maximize their crop output.
The main underlying theme of the September 11 hearing was the value
of federally sponsored research in improving weather prediction. At the
time of the hearing, the House Appropriations Committee had stripped NOAA
of funding for the Tropical Oceans and Global Atmosphere (TOGA) observing
system, an array of buoys which is given much of the credit for predicting
the current El Niño. Rep. Steven Schiff (R-NM), Energy and Environment
Subcommittee chairman, and Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN), ranking member, stated
their desire to work with their colleagues to restore funding for TOGA