|History of El Nino - Tracking a Global Mystery|
It may seem like El Niņo is a recent phenomenon -- all of a sudden out of the clear blue sky, so to speak. It's everywhere today, glued to the front pages of all major newspapers and magazines, insurance companies are going crazy at the thought of damages -- roughly $8 billion for the last one -- and now the internet? Search engines are producing URL's by the trillions for the query of "El Niņo". You may be thinking, "Where did it come from?" and worse, "Is this another greenhouse gas effect?"
The answer and more is what you will find on this site.
The 1567 El Niņo
Historical records speak of an El Nino that took place in 1567. We can only guess what earlier civilizations thought of the change in weather, and what gods they cursed for the drought, or lack of fish, or massive rains that wiped out their crops. Peruvian sailors who fished in small boats along the western-most shores of South America were the first to give a name to the phenomenon. Normally the waters they fished were cold and flowed from south to north. But in certain years the waters would reverse their flow and become very warm. This, of course, was not good for fishing; basically, the fish food chain would collapse and the year would be a write-off for the fishermen. Because the phenomenon would usually begin to peak around the Christian Christmas holiday, the sailors named the odd weather "El Niņo" meaning "the Christ Child." [Read the section called "El Nino: The Name and Its Meaning" later in this section for more information on the name.]
Then, a most important thing was recognized when one of the main engines on the Conrad developed a problem. Running on only one engine would leave the vessel considerably behind schedule, since the engine had to work against the prevailing east-to-west current. However, all of the navigational readings revealed that the vessel was travelling east faster that it should have been; the Conrad was actually ahead of schedule. This could only have happened if the ocean currents were flowing from west to east, the reverse of normal direction.
We now know that the crew witnessed one of the strongest El Niņo's of this century -- the 1982-82 El Niņo.
For a long time the unusual appearance of warm surface waters off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador was thought to be a local, coastal phenomenon. However, the 1950s revealed a different picture. Scientists organized in 1957 an International Geophysical Year of intensive measurements of our planet. It so happens that El Niņo occurred in 1957. The data collected in this meeting showed two important things: (1) the unusual warm surface water was not confined to Ecuador and Peru coasts but extended thousands of kilometers offshore and covered much of the eastern tropical Pacific and (2) trade winds over the Pacific Ocean were unusually relaxed that year.
Why did this happen?
The scientific community needed the assistance of Sir Gilbert Walker from England to provide with more information about this "local phenomenon".