Key Moments in El Niño History, a Blog from Bob

December 1, 2014 - 12:57am

El Nino Nov. 2014It's been a fascinating journey, watching how scientific and public views of El Niño have evolved over the last several decades. Sometimes you still see El Niño portrayed as a devastating creature, guaranteed to wreak havoc on everything in its supposed path. But the picture has gradually grown more sophisticated as scientists have learned more about the workings of this vast, complex phenomenon and how to communicate its impacts effectively.

How did we get from there to here? A few landmarks stand out in the last 50 years of research and communication on El Niño, La Niña, and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). (For quick definitions of each of these, check out the NCAR/UCAR Weather-Maker Patterns Glossary.)

Below is a quick rundown of some historical ENSO highlights. For a deeper dive into ENSO research, prediction, and public awareness, check out the AtmosNews/Perspective blog post "Here comes El Niño—but what exactly is it?" 


Jacob Bjerknes published a landmark paper in 1966 (see PDF) connecting the oceanic and atmospheric components that are part of an El Niño event.

Michael Glantz1970

Pioneering social scientists such as NCAR's Michael "Mickey" Glantz (at left) delve into the implications of El Niño for people on the ground and the potential usefulness of El Niño predictions for saving lives and livelihoods (see PDF, 1977).


The most intense El Niño recorded up to that point brought devastating winter storms to much of California and severe drought and wildfire to Australia, among other widespread impacts. For multiple reasons, scientists recognized this event only after it had formed.


Buoy in Equatorial Pacific, Source: NOAAThe United States, Japan, and other nations deploy instrumented buoys as part of the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere program (TOGA). Because these buoys can detect the eastward spread of warm water months before an El Niño event hits maturity, they serve as an invaluable early-warning tool.



A regional forecasting model developed by Mark Cane and Stephen Zebiak (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) generates some of the first model-based ENSO predictions.


TOGA mounted one of the largest-ever atmospheric research projects, the Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE). Aircraft and ships canvassed the western Pacific tropics for months, and the resulting analyses showed how tightly the ocean and atmosphere components of ENSO were linked.


TAO Buoy Array, Source: NOAAA massive El Niño, even stronger than the 1982–83 event, takes hold in late 1997. This time, thanks to the TOGA buoy network (locations across the equatorial Pacific shown at left) and more sophisticated satellites, forecasters saw the oceanic precursors well in advance and sounded the alarm ahead of the biggest impacts. These included record rains in California, severe drought in Indonesia, and a deadly tornado outbreak in Florida.


The intense El Niño quickly segues into a strong La Niña event, as NCAR's Glantz brought a diverse group of scientists, journalists, and policy experts to Boulder for the first-ever La Niña Summit (see PDF for executive summary, United Nations University Press for collected papers).


Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Source: UCAR/NCARIt's been a quiet century for El Niño thus far. The last 15 years have been more dominated by La Niña events, part of a Pacific-wide rearrangement of ocean circulation that tends to shift modes every 20–30 years. This phenomenon is referred to as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, depending on which part of the ocean is analyzed. Evidence is mounting that the world's oceans tend to retain more heat deeper down, below the surface, during the PDO's negative phase—apparently a big reason why Earth's atmosphere hasn't warmed much since the late 1990s.

Curious about what El Niño is doing right now, and what kind of event we may have in store for 2014–15?  Check out the AtmosNews post, "Here comes El Niño—but what exactly is it?"    

About the author

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson worked at UCAR & NCAR between 1989 and 2015 and currently serves as a writer and blogger for Weather Underground.   He is a contributing editor of Weatherwise and has written for Nature, Scientific American, Audobon, AIR & SPACE/Smithsonian, and a number of other publications.  He has also written several books: The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change; Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology; The Rough Guide to Climate Change; and The Rough Guide to Weather.

He's an avid cyclist and storm photographer, not to mention an expert reporter of ENSO and other weather conditions. It's no wonder ENSO is core to his sir name –hENSOn!