El Niño: Science vs. Nature
The striking impact of this year’s El Niño is the worst in recorded history. Thanks to the brilliant efforts of teams of scientists, the bottom line on this costly winter has been lessened. But still, the human and environmental toll has never been surpassed. As we witness a worsening of these global weather events, shouldn’t we be focused on the cause of the disasters? Is there a more reliable source of prediction than the climatologists’ warnings based on their vast array of technology? The answer is yes, but the experts will probably use this source as their last option!
What is El Niño?
Weather patterns equalize the energy on earth. Without circulation and distribution of heat energy caused by terrestrial and solar radiation, the global environment would not support the diversity of life that it does. The distribution of energy around the globe is the engine behind weather patterns.
Ocean currents alter the weather more than any other physical force, except changing seasons. The oceans distribute heat at a slower pace compared to the atmosphere, but the two work in tandem to distribute energy.
El Niño is a major disruption of this energy balance. During an El Niño event, trade winds diminish, so the warmer waters which are typically blown west now stagnate in the eastern Pacific off the Americas. As the warm pool broadens, trade winds head east and build towering thunderstorms in the eastern Pacific instead of the western Pacific. These storms add more moisture and energy to the upper atmosphere, which is then expelled through more violent continental storm systems. The altered balance also drives the jet stream from its usual pattern, bringing moisture-laden, energy-rich storm systems to the southern United States.
The earth’s dynamic energy balance generally brings El Niño (or its sister, La Niña—see page 11) around every two to seven years. A typical El Niño raises sea surface temperatures of the equatorial Pacific about two degrees Fahrenheit. The 1997-98 event has recorded increases over nine degrees! By October 1997, the warm pool encompassed a greater area than the continental United States, stretching over 25 percent of the circumference of the earth.
To measure the strength of this year’s El Niño, climatologists compare it to the 1982-83 system—up to now the worst on record. During the winter of 1982 through the spring of 1983, El Niño was responsible for over 2,000 deaths and a staggering $13 billion worth of damage worldwide.
According to experts we can expect the final tally on the 1997-98 El Niño to shatter previous records. “The numbers are essentially off the charts, compared to all of the historical records that are available,” said James Kinter, executive director of the Maryland-based Institute of Global Environment. “If it persists, as it is likely to do into the winter, then it is the biggest climate event of the century” (Daily News Sept. 7, 1997). Dr. Kinter’s comments have proven to be correct.
By late February 1998, the U.S. government was prepared to declare this year’s El Niño the worst ever recorded. “On a 1-to-5 scale, ‘this El Niño is at least a 5, if not completely off the scale,’ said Joe Friday, director of research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ‘By the time we finish, this will indeed be the most significant El Niño event of the century,’ as measured by the number and intensity of storms and damage inflicted” (USA Today, Feb. 26, 1998).
Impact of El Niño
Have we become calloused to “natural” disasters? It seems the media is reporting almost daily on a new disaster. Let’s consider some of the disasters where El Niño has been a contributing factor.
“El Niño means more than strange weather: It can put rare species at peril, unleash epidemics, and alter ecosystems. These biological effects—and their repercussions for society—are even harder to predict but can account for a huge share of the economic costs that El Niño imposes” (U.S. News and World Report, Oct. 6, 1997).
El Niño devastates fisheries on the west coast because the typically nutrient-rich waters have moved east. Marine life either dies or migrates with the waters. Damage to coral reefs may take up to a century to rebuild, as was estimated after the 1982-83 event in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. “Floods, droughts, out-of-control fires. The devastating effects of the El Niño weather pattern on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are troubling enough. But when scientist Richard Fairbanks reached the Pacific atoll of Christmas Island, he found something more quietly chilling: stretches of dead coral, no sign of fish in the water and few birds in the sky…. ‘It’s an example of a complete ecosystem collapse that’s directly linked to El Niño’…. Forty percent of the island’s coral was dead, the warmer water had killed or driven away fish and the atoll’s plentiful bird population was almost completely gone” (Herald Statesman, Dec. 8, 1997).
Not only does El Niño destroy diverse biological reserves, but it magnifies the vengeful power of nature! A normal year rarely brings a hurricane to the California coast; water temperature is not temperate enough. Yet in October 1997, Hurricane Nora blew ashore. The fingers of rain from this storm reached all the way into Arizona where 1000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. The brunt of the storm centered over southern California, leaving three dead. For the first time in 219 days, rain poured from the skies over Los Angeles, breaking a prolonged drought.
During that same fateful month, the tourist city of Acapulco, Mexico, suffered a crippling blow when Hurricane Pauline roared ashore. Torrents of rain and flooding washed mud, cars and even people into the stormy Pacific ocean. Before the storm finally dissipated, over 200 people had been killed by this weather anomaly.
Hundreds died and thousands were left homeless through Central and South America from flooding and mud-slides. It is difficult to comprehend the economic dimension in this beleaguered region of the world. Crops and livestock have washed away, leaving the people in great despair as they look to the spring and summer months.
One of the most devastating blows of El Niño is the havoc it wreaks on the agricultural industry. More than just tampering with business, the after-effects leave thousands to starve and fight off pestilence. Long after El Niño dissipates, farmers must face flooded fields and vineyards that may take months or years to recuperate.
Diversity of Disaster
Many associate hurricanes, rain and flooding with El Niño, but drought and fire are also a scorching threat of this natural oscillation. Tropical regions such as northern Brazil and much of southeast Asia are dried out during an El Niño event. These once lush, humid gardens, the oxygen factories of the earth, are prime sources of fuel for the formidable infernos.
“Raging fires fanned by dry winds have burned an area the size of Lebanon in the northern state of Roraima [northern Brazil] over the past two months, and officials said they were virtually powerless to stop it” (Washington Post, March 18, 1998). In some instances, fire fighters battling the multiple blazes in the Amazon resorted to using sticks and blankets to combat the flames for lack of equipment. These fires raged out of control for over two months before a long overdue shower squelched them in early April.
Fires in Indonesia and Malaysia are deliberately ignited annually to clear rain forest land for farming. But with El Niño’s drying affect, the seasonal monsoon rainstorms never came. As a result, nothing prevented the expansion of the tinder-box conditions which allowed fires to rage out of control, eventually charring more than one million acres.
Transportation inspectors blamed poor visibility (caused by smoke) for the crash of an Indonesian airliner in Sumatra in September 1997.
Last year, forest fires created a dense blanket of smog, which extended throughout Southeast Asia, causing widespread health problems. The haze of forest fires and drought fueled by El Niño has had a far-reaching impact on the people of Indonesia. Once the rice stores are diminished, the effects of El Niño will be felt by all the people. Considering the crumbling economies throughout southeast Asia, the El Niño spawned, 50-year drought could not have come at a worse time!
In sharp contrast, a deep freeze engulfed the northeastern United States and Canada. Over three and a half inches of rain and freezing rain coated the landscape, isolating over a half million residents in their homes. Close to four million people lost power during the January ice storm in Canada—one of the worst on record.
But the disasters capturing the widest publicity hit Florida and California. For years, California struggled through a record-breaking drought. Then the rains began to fall. No one anticipated the magnitude of the torrential downpours which flooded the state during January and early February. The wettest February on record came to a close in northern California amidst forecasts for additional rain. Since July 1997, Los Angeles has received nearly twice its normal amount of rainfall.
California has racked up over $1 billion of damage from earth-slides—none of which is covered by insurance. Even with promises of disaster relief on local, state and federal levels, many will not be able to recoup losses caused by this year’s El Niño.
Moving east, storm damage and unusual weather made their way to the southeastern seaboard of the U.S. The Carolinas and Georgia endured flooding in early 1998, but it was the intense tornadic activity which captivated our attention. Tornadoes ripped through Florida, killing 42 people and injuring hundreds more. Skipping through several counties in three hours, 260 mph swirling vortices brought horror to the central regions of Florida. Over 900 homes and businesses were left uninhabitable!
Perhaps one of the most unusual winter weather disasters happened in northern Georgia on March 20. Even with the watchful eye of National Weather Service’s satellites and meteorologists on duty, this killer tornado did not even register on their warning systems! With winds over 200 mph, the twister killed 12 people and injured over 100 others.
Impact of Predictions
As we consider El Niño’s devastation around the world, reflecting on the long-term consequences of these disasters, it is hard to be comforted when told it all could have been worse had we not received warnings last summer. Lives have been lost, property has been decimated; thousands of people have had their futures turned upside-down.
The early detection of rising temperatures in the Pacific led to many preventative measures. “Because the public has spent so much time preparing for these storms, we feel the resulting damage overall has been slight so far,” says Steve Valenzuela of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “By being armed with sandbags, plastic, and plywood to help divert water, many communities have largely escaped devastating consequences” (Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 20, 1998). Hardly reassuring words for the thousands who have suffered from El Niño.
After 1982-83, many international climate research teams began to study El Niño more in depth. If scientists could accurately predict the emergence and movement of an El Niño, they reasoned, billions of dollars could be saved, not to mention the lives of thousands of people.
The Tropical Oceans and Global Atmosphere program deployed an armada of 70 buoys throughout the equatorial Pacific to measure oceanographic and surface meteorological variables. This project was hailed as an international financial savior, thanks to the preparations for this century’s worst El Niño event made possible by their forecasts.
But experts such as Ants Leetmaa (director of the Climate Prediction Center) warned, “Even with the advances in El Niño forecasting, people shouldn’t expect too much” (USA Today, Aug. 1, 1997). The complexities of global climate prediction outsmart even the most sophisticated computer models running on the world’s fastest computers. There are simply too many factors to consider.
Scientists have learned well how to predict the onset of an El Niño. Acting on those predictions undoubtedly reduces the potential for loss, but they only dampen the magnitude of devastation. Predictions don’t stop El Niñofrom developing. Being prepared is one thing, but stopping or preventing the destruction is beyond our control—or is it?
The Cause of El Niño?
In the wake of El Niño, one thing has become crystal clear. We are better than ever at recording and analyzing the various effects of El Niño, but we we keep drifting further and further away from understanding the cause. Advances in technology develop and aid our understanding of the vast matrix of influences which result in an El Niño, but we still don’t know why it happens. “The more scientists learn about the earth’s climate system, the more complex and interconnected it seems, and the harder it is to unravel” (Time, Feb. 16, 1998).
The March 9, 1998, issue of Newsweek adds, “There is little agreement on what weather pattern will replace El Niño. Meteorologists are intent on figuring it out—their winter forecasts allowed Californians to patch their roofs, shore up hillsides, clear flood channels, bolster levees and train swift-water rescue crews. But predictions can do only so much. The devastation in Florida and California shows that the power of science is nothing compared with the power of El Niño’s storms.”
What comes next? Some are predicting La Niña. Whatever happens, this much we know: weather is becoming more unusual and less predictable! “El Niños come every three to seven years on average, and most are relatively mild. But something funny may be going on. Between 1991 and 1996, the sea surface was almost continuously warm, and there have been two record-breaking El Niños in the latter part of this century” (U.S. News and World Report, Oct. 6, 1997).
The early 1990s have brought a succession of El Niño events. Some wonder if this is caused by global warming. Others believe it to be a random fluctuation in the natural cycle. According to Time, “There are as yet no good answers to these questions. Observes Michael Glantz of the National Center for Atmospheric Research: ‘The discrepancy between what we think we know about El Niño and what there is to know may still be quite large’” (Time, Aug. 16, 1997).
In Leviticus 26:20-21 God says, “And your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits. And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins.” When God says He will bring seven times more plagues, the expression more accurately is translated that the plagues will get seven times worse. We are now witnessing the impact of El Niño magnified in succession. The past fifty years demonstrate a strengthening of the entire phenomena. With each oscillation bearing more devastation, it is clearly obvious that God’s prediction is true.
These “disasters,” which are scarcely understood, could be brought to an end if we would only obey God. He uses these events to bring us back to obedience to His law—a law which will yield prosperity if obeyed. Please read through Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 to discover the relationship between physical blessings for obedience and the horrible “natural” consequences of disobedience. An honest evaluation of God’s warnings, compared to what is observed today in our delicate climatic balance, can yield only one conclusion—God does exist and He controls the weather!
It’s time we took notice of what God says. The most accurate method of prediction and preparation lies in the pages of your Bible. Sadly, that is often the last place we look. How long before we truly understand the simple connection between our prosperity and our relationship with Creator God?