What is El Niño

The term El Niño (Spanish for "the Christ Child") was originally used by fishermen along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru to refer to a warm ocean current that occasionally appears around Christmas-time and lasts for several months. Fish are less abundant during these warm intervals, so fishermen often take a break to repair their equipment and spend time with their families. In some years, however, the water is especially warm and the break in the fishing season persists into May or even June. Over the years, the term "El Niño" has come to be reserved for these exceptionally strong warm intervals that not only disrupt the normal lives of the fishermen but also bring heavy rains and loss of agricultural productivity.

During the past 40 years, nine El Niños have affected the South American coast. Most of them raised water temperatures, not only along the coast, but also around the Galapagos Islands and in a belt stretching 5,000 miles across the equatorial Pacific. The weaker events raised sea temperatures slightly and had only minor impacts on South American fisheries. But the strong ones, like the El Niño of 1982-83 (see table), left an imprint, not only upon the local weather and marine life, but also on climatic conditions around the globe (see map). Since 1976, the El Niño has been unusually frequent and long-lived.

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Last updated 04/10/96