Deconstructing El Niño

Never was there a more exhilarating time to be a weatherman or a roofer. During the winter of 1997/98, theworld was bombarded by news storms, flooded by hype, and spun by marketing hurricanes. With the helpof a frenzied media, weather assumed the significance of religion, and El Niño became a household name.

Although it’s hard to believe, it seems El Niño existed before photogenic meteorologists brought it into ourliving rooms. Scientists agree that El Niño’s been around for thousands of years, but it’s taken a while tofigure the wily weather system out. Historical records show an El Niño that began in 1567. Peruvianfishermen, who sailed along the westernmost shores of South America, were the first to name thephenomenon.

Typically, the waters they fished were cold, flowing from south to north. However, in someyears-every two to seven it turns out-the flow reversed and the waters warmed considerably. The fishfood-chain would collapse, and with it the fishermen’s livelihood. Because the phenomenon peaked aroundthe Christmas season, the fishermen named the strange weather “El Niño,” meaning “the Christ Child,” or”The Son.” It took 500 years for scientists to accept that El Niño’s effects reached far beyond SouthAmerica.

The advent of high-speed computers, combined with more rigorous weather study anddocumentation, precipitated a clearer picture of El Niño’s effects and a growing ability to predict itsoccurrence. However, the 1982/83 El Niño, the most severe of the twentieth century, wasn’t identified until itwas half over because it didn’t exhibit the typical early warning signs. It wreaked havoc on the planet. Afterten-billion dollars in damages, over 2,000 lost lives, massive drought, devastating bushfires, tidal waves, andflash floods, El Niño had done more than catch our attention-the brutal weather anomaly became aworldwide foe whose return loomed threateningly on our collective horizon. April 1997. He’s back. (Likefiremen, meteorologists wake from bed, dress instantly, and slide down a pole into their weather controlcenters.)

The first predictions initiated among climatologists, scientists, and meteorologists, while surfers inCalifornia logged in more spring trunk days than anyone can remember. September 1997. Members of theweather-science community duked it out over the severity of this El Niño, while insurance salesmen androofers got in on the action. By mid December, debate surrounding El Niño succumbed to the real thing.Abnormal temperatures were recorded all over the globe. Small towns held emergency meetings to plan forthe possible devastation, people in mudslide-prone areas sandbagged around the clock, and snowboarderscombed shops for an El Niño wax. Along with the astronomical hype, El Niño created some all too realeffects. Over the next few months, human powerlessness against weather was made painfully clear. Wecould only sit back and watch as ABC and CNN brought us the apocalypse in nightly increments. Faithfully,a bushy-mustached, perma-grinned man used the latest weather-tech visuals and elaborate hand motions toshow what El Niño was up to and where he might strike next. Weather public-relations officials possessedan endless supply of calamity footage from around the planet, giving us the weather like never before.

Though I knew everything would be fine where I lived, one can never be too careful, so I constructed, as Isuspect many of you did, an El Niño shelter. I also created my own El Niño warning device that monitoredatmospheric vibrational fluctuations and the eating habits of flying squirrels. Weather affects us all in differentways, and with aberrant storms passing overhead, you never knew what might happen from one day to thenext. The stock market continued to do well, but no doubt more than one smooth-talking trader lost hissilicon-enhanced date to a Rogaine-using, nouveau-riche flood-insurance salesman. And thhe human realmwas not the only one thrown out of whack. The animal world went completely berserk: in an unprecedentedattack, a pod of killer whales (one member of which was unofficially identified as Willy) killed a sperm whalenear the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. More disturbing than that-many dogs, including miniaturedaschunds, showed a waning interest in chasing cats and often looked to the sky with puzzled expressions ontheir faces.

Needless to say, for several months the world was not as we typically knew it. And although mycroquet game dwindled to its worst in months, I felt ecstatic. My home mountains in California got the best ofEl Niño’s fallout. Friends in Tahoe gave up counting powder days, finding it easier to number theirnon-powder days. Snowboarders in New Mexico rode more early season days and ate hotter chiles than atany time in recent history. And remarkably, Southern California resorts actually offered more than a park toride. Some resorts enjoyed their best year ever. Alyeska resort in Alaska had 902 inches of snow, 38percent up from normal, and El Niño blanketed California’s Mt. Shasta with over 600 inches of snow. It wasShangri-la for some, but unfortunately, like that poor sperm whale, not everyone was happily spelling El Niñoin the their morning bowl of Alpha Bits. El Niño’s power includes bending the jet stream, and that he did. Thewinter came late, and for some, not at all. Early season left Utah and Colorado riders cursing El Niño withevery P-tex stick they lit, but thanks to a barrage of late-season snow, they ended up with near-averagetotals. Other regions weren’t saved. The Midwest suffered a dismal snow year-not a single flake fell duringthe entire month of February. Shanty Creek, Michigan had a yearly snowfall total of only 78 inches, 61percent below their 200-inch average. In Idaho, the situation was even worse; Schweitzer Mountain sawonly 52 inches of snow, down 70 percent from normal. I’m surprised we haven’t seen stickers with El Niñoand a line through it on American trucks in some of the smaller towns across the Midwest, or Montana andIdaho for that matter. May 1998.

The hype subsided. But not before a guy named Al Nino enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame, and a new minor-league badminton team, El Segundo El Niño, was born. While the immediate weather anomalies diminished, the effects would last indefinitely. We saw more allergies, moresnake bites, more bad- hair days, and the possible emergence of Los Mosquitos. Occurrences ofspontaneous combustion were way higher than normal, as were UFO sightings, but in a small town in Texas,life went on as normal. Just as it eclipsed presidential sex scandals, O.J., and the Mars landing, so did ElNiño drop from the media spotlight. But not with what I had anticipated-a genetic breakthrough or a newLeonardo DiCaprio movie-it was replaced instead by the possible presence of La Niña, El Niño’s powerfulsister. Hurricanes have names, weather cycles like El Niño and La Niña are widely-known, and we seem tobe on a roll with the whole weather thing.

Before you know it, we’ll have rain-shower Fred and heat-wave Wilma, and jet-stream Jerry or Jill-depending on which way it bends. Every weather occurrence will be named, plotted, and hyped. So despite what kind of winter you had this past season, you can thank El Niñofor taking our relationship with weather (and resort marketing ploys) to a whole new level. In the future,when we live in bubbles filled with our own manufactured and controlled weather, I’m sure we’ll miss the oldEl Niño mania. -Scooter Leonard (a.k.a. Bolt Lightning, Esq.)