Social Issues and Psychology:
Psychology & The Environment
Fall, 1997


Humans' Attempts to Understand and Predict El Niņo and its Effects:Humans and Complex Systems
Wendi Hauck, Ehren Hines, Denise Sobieski & John Ward

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   Despite the difficulty in studying such a complex, chaotic system, scientists have not been thwarted in their desires to understand El Niņo. The World Climate Research Programme of the United Nations predicts that the 1997-1998 El Niņo could be the most important climatic event of the century, affecting such a large area that it could cause billions of dollars worth of damage globally (Begley, 1997). Therefore, everyone is eager to predict El Niņo and its impact as soon as possible.

    Teams such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been working hard to keep track of the current El Niņo. They have set up 70 buoys in the Pacific Ocean spread out across one-third of the globe to measure sea temperatures, currents, and winds.

With the data they collect, computer models are used to turn the readings into climateRTN3.gif (36415 bytes) predictions (Begley, 1997). Another international research project which lasted for a ten year period (January 1985-December 1994) was designed to study the ENSO system. It was known as the Tropical Oceans and Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program (Geotimes, 1997). During the study, researchers were able to develop many new theories concerning ENSO with computer models. However, at the end of the study, they realized there were still many unanswered questions and hoped to continue the program (photo used by permission of RTN).

    Other scientists, spurred by the 1982-1983 El Niņo and its surprise approach, are trying to avoid another unexpected onslaught by examining not only current records, but also past events and historical evidence of El Niņos in sea surface temperature records from merchant ships that cross the equator, daily observations of atmospheric pressure and rainfall that date back to 100 years ago, fishery records from South America, and writings of fifteenth century Spanish colonists in settlement along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador. Coral samples and tree rings can also provide clues to past El Niņos. Coral normally grows in warm water close to their temperature limit. When El Niņos increase the water temperature, coral often bleach and die. Tree rings also provide evidence, for they vary in width of annual growth based on the climate.

    The data gathered from these various studies can be used in numerical prediction models which are computer programs designed to represent, in terms of equations, processes occur in nature. The data which describes the present state of the atmosphere and ocean (ie wind speeds, currents, and water temperatures) can be plugged into the computer, and then the models produce sets of numbers that indicate how the atmosphere and ocean system might evolve over the next few seasons or years. The models can also be used to test our current understanding of how such complex systems work. For example, information from past El Niņos can be used to see if the models are able to replicate the impacts accurately. If the models are successful, they can be used for predictions regarding future El Niņos.

    Accurate predictions of El Niņo can be extremely important to the economies of several nations. More accurate predictions of El Niņo and especially its effects on rainfall can allow more strategic planning regarding agriculture (if farmers know how much rain to expect, they can plant the crop that will yield the most from the conditions expected), management of vital resources such as water (if area are expecting drought, they can prepare ahead and conserve water), reserves of grain, fuel, and oil, and also management of fisheries (fishermen can prepare for movement of fish due to warming of water). In general, if nations know what to expect, they can better adapt and prepare ahead of time.

    There is still a lack of good predictive models for ENSO which would allow for accurate predications of global rainfall variations. Currently, only rough forecasts are available for areas worldwide which offer probabilities for rainfall three to six months in advance (Stone, Hammer, and Marcussen, 1996). These can still be applied and be useful in preparing industries and managing resources, but they are fallible. More accuracy is desired as it seems many predictions at the local level still involve a lot of guesswork (Hotz and Wilgoren, 1997). Indeed, while scientists have put several pieces of the puzzle together, many characteristics of El Niņo and the ENSO system remain a mystery.

    Questions still surround the phenomenon. It is difficult to identify the subtle changes involved in the ocean and atmosphere system which mark the beginning and end of an El Niņo. For example, no one has been able to identify yet why the trade winds suddenly diminish at the start of an El Niņo. Furthermore, no one knows why the El Niņos have been occurring at such a rapid rate recently. Normally, they occur with about equal frequency at intervals of two to ten years, but since 1976, there have been nine El Niņos or one every 2.2 years. Compared to records dating back to 1860, this pattern has never occurred previously. 

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Psy 412 Miami University. Last revised: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 17:06:36. This document has been accessed 1,218 times since July 15, 1997. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman . Also See: Social Psychology at Miami University