WHAT'S EL NIÑO TRYING TO TELL US?

by Whit Gibbons

January 3, 2010


The following announcement was made on July 9, 2009, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and ignored by virtually everyone. "NOAA scientists today announced the arrival of El Niño, a climate phenomenon with a significant influence on global weather . . . . The periodic warming of central and eastern tropical Pacific waters occurs on average every two to five years and typically lasts about 12 months. NOAA expects this El Niño to continue developing during the next several months, with further strengthening possible. The event is expected to last through winter 2009-10."

Thus, you may have noticed a little more rain than usual during this fall and beginning of winter. Or, if you live in a part of the world different from where I am, you may have noticed there that everyone there is talking about the unusual drought. In any case, based on the NOAA report, in 2010 we will have something besides global climate change to "explain" why the weather is different: El Niño.

Part of this column is a repeat from an earlier column--for what I think are two good reasons. First, it's about the weather, which is a timeless subject. And second, people are still in holiday mode as they ring in the new year. I don't think they want to hear breaking news about a new ecological discovery, be told why forest fires are sometimes good, or read a list of ways to avoid an attack by alligators and Komodo dragons. So here is some weather talk.

Some people think talking about the weather is inane and boring. I do not agree. But in the spirit of full disclosure here are some points of view from the other side. Oscar Wilde stated that "conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative." And Kin Hubbard, an Indiana humorist, said, "Don't knock the weather. If it didn't change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn't start a conversation." Perhaps the most hurtful statement to those of us who find weather fascinating came from the pen of Thomas Fuller, a British physician who died in the 18th century. "Change of weather is the discourse of fools." Hey, back off. Some of us like weather talk, even if it is just a harmless way to complain.

I don't seem to be able to write about the weather without mentioning the foolishness of something I do each day, along with several billion other people, which is check the weather forecast. Not just for the day, but for the week! Why do we continue to pay any attention to a weather forecast? My cousin Steve, who is a meteorologist, asserts that "nowcasting" is the only reliable weather report. Put your hand out the window to see if it's raining or snowing, hot or cold. He notes that meteorological studies have documented that the prediction that the weather tomorrow will be exactly like it was today is more likely to be right than any other predictions that are made.

Want some proof of how unreliable long-range weather forecasts typically are? Tape those five-day projections on your refrigerator each day for a week then line up what happened today with what was predicted five days ago. You will find the earlier forecast about whether it would rain was right about as many times as it was wrong.

A difference between wild animals and humans is that animals that based their survival on the misguided belief that they were able to predict the weather eventually left no descendants. That kind of thinking no longer exists in the animal kingdom, except for humans. So why do we all keep checking the weather report? Someone named Patrick Young has part of the answer: "The trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it."

As a case in point, the NOAA's very long-range prediction of July 9, 2009, was right on target. "NOAA expects this El Niño to continue developing . . . and to last through winter 2009-10." Yes indeed.


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