Q1) What were the impacts of the El Niño event on Peru?
It was the Peruvians who coined the term El Niño as far back as
1891. Following the usual El Niño pattern, in the 1997/8 event
warm water piled up off the country’s Pacific coast, blocking the
usual colder current, taking nutrients, and therefore fish, from
Catastrophic floods inundated towns and villages throughout the
Rock and mudslides in the village of Corcona.
River Nepeña, normally gentle, turned into a raging torrent.
Traditional mud-brick building material, commonly used in
LEDCs, disintegrated in the flood waters.
Chiclayo was one of many northern towns badly affected.
In all, Peru lost 30 major bridges and the country ground to a
The normally bone-dry Sechura Desert, also in northern Peru,
was transformed by El Niño. Six months after the El Niño rains
stopped, a lake here was still 20ft deep. Fish, washed down
from mountain streams, provided refugees with an unexpected
Heavy El Niño rains had been predicted in the north, but they
also reached down into central Peru. Eg, town of Chosica
370 miles of major roads destroyed.
The Peruvians had thought the 1982/3 El Niño event was as
bad as it could get, but 1997/8 was worse. Several years’ worth
of rainfall fell in just three months.
Floods swept down to the outskirts of the capital Lima itself, for
the first time in living memory.
The city of Ica, 180 miles further south of Lima, was devastated.
250 people drowned here, and thousands had to be evacuated.
Those who survived the initial deluge were left with ruined
homes. Floods deposited thick mud everywhere.
Throughout the country, more than a third of a million people
lost their homes. Only a few of the young and needy could be
airlifted to safety.
Q2) What were the impacts on Chile?
Storms carried on down the South America coast into northern Chile.
80,000 lost their homes.
Even the Atacama Desert in northern Chile was affected, normally the
driest place on Earth. Local legend said it hadn’t rained there for over
400 years. In 1998 rains formed a temporary lake and the desert
bloomed. Flowers sprang up from seeds that may have laid dormant
for hundreds of years (actually became a tourist spot where people
came to see the ‘desert in bloom’).
But it was only the desert that welcomed El Niño – some towns were
struck by summer blizzards.
Farmers were not used to the freak conditions and freezing
temperatures that slaughtered their livestock.
Q3) What happened beyond the Andes mountain range in Brazil
In Brazil, El Niño replaced moisture with drought and fires spread
across the parched land.
Beyond this band of drought, El Niño created another band of floods,
eg in Argentina the great Paraná River rose 27ft higher than normal to
flood 30,000 sq miles, an area the size of Scotland.
Q4) In what ways did Mexico suffer?
El Niño‘s wave of destruction spread up into Central and North
America. In late 1997, storms lashed the Pacific coast of Mexico – eg
Hurricanes are rare in the eastern Pacific, but three of them smashed
ashore causing severe destruction. The worst of them, hurricane
Pauline, dumped 16 inches of rain in the hills behind Acapulco in just
24 hours. Flash floods roared down into the town towards the sea. In a
single day, the floods claimed 400 lives. Hurricane Pauline had
sounded a warning bell for the whole of North America.
Snow fell in subtropical Guadalajara, Mexico, in December of 1997,
where people had never seen a snow storm before.
Q5) How was El Niño’s presence felt in California?
In late 1997, California prepared for El Niño. The normal winter sunshine
was replaced by torrential rain, and with the rain came floods. There were
landslides in several parts of the state.
Eg, Laguna Canyon was ripped apart by storms in February 1998. On the
hills above the canyon, waterlogged earth began to liquefy causing
mudslides. Residents and their homes were engulfed in mud. One man
The name El Niño spread across America; it seemed anything that went
wrong could be blamed on the phenomenon.
Q6) What occurred further north still in Canada?
Where winter snow is expected in Canada, El Niño produced an ice
storm. Much of Quebec province paralysed in January 1998. Electricity
pylons collapsed under the weight of three inches of ice.
Unusually powerful jet streams had driven warm humid air far into the
north, then rain turned to ice as it hit the freezing landscape.
Ice storm blacked out half of Montreal for a week.
Q7) What were the impacts of tornadoes in America?
The 1997/98 El Niño had one other effect on North America’s weather: it
created tornadoes where they were not expected.
There were 1,200 tornadoes in 1998, compared to the expected figure of
about 1,000. More people were killed by them than in previous years: over
Well ahead of the regular season, several tornadoes ripped through the
south-eastern states. In April, the most powerful tornado of the year struck
near Birmingham, Alabama, just one of 40 to strike Alabama that month.
Especially in south-eastern states, a correlation was found between
increased frequency of tornadoes and El Niño.
El Niño also believed to have triggered an outbreak of tornadoes in the
early part of 1998 in central Florida, just south of Orlando. 400 homes
destroyed and 42 dead. People here were used to 100mph hurricanes,
not 200mph tornadoes.
Q8) How else was North America affected?
El Niño had reached right across a continent to inflict its damage. Across
the sunbelt states to Nevada, in April 1998 plague of locusts was triggered
by unusually moist condition in the desert.
Hundreds of forest fires in Florida and Mexico. Smoke was a hazard for
both aircraft and car traffic across the Gulf states for several months.
Q9) On the other side of the world, how was Indonesia affected?
Even before El Niño hit the Americas, it had already started to inflict
disaster. On the other side of the Pacific, moisture had been drawn out to
sea, leaving the land tinder-dry (remember, in an El Niño event there is
the reversal of the Walker circulation leading to high pressure over the
Fires raged out of control. Eg drought and forest fires in Indonesian
islands and Borneo. Entire countries were covered in paralysing smog. Air
travel ground to a halt.
Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, was in September 1997 choked
with smoke from fires burning hundreds of miles away. People wore
masks to help them breathe.
Q10) What information is given about the history of El Niño since the
In the 1972-73 event Africa was ravaged by drought and famine, the most
disastrous consequence of El Niño. India also ravaged by drought, with
monsoon rains over a month late. These were two events teleconnected
to El Niño.
It was not until the El Niño of 1982-3 that governments took notice. Here,
the Australian outback was turned into a dustbowl of drought. Melbourne
was engulfed by an unprecedented dust storm with 100million tonnes of
soil dumped on the city. There were uncontrollable bush fires. 8,000
families lost their homes, there was over £2billion of damage and 73
killed. The 1982/3 event was therefore the wake-up call to many
Q11) How has El Niño been monitored over recent decades?
An array of over buoys laid out across the Pacific to measure water
temperatures. Scientists hoped to find out what happens both before and
during an El Niño event.
The 1982/3 event was the El Niño of the century up until that time and it
was neither predicted nor detected until it was nearly at its peak. The aim
was to detect events before they struck in full.
Now can get information by satellite relay to monitor Pacific and put data
into computer models. However, we still can only give a few months’
warning of when warm El Niño waters might hit Peru.
The computer models have yet to be refined though and inaccuracies
We have not measured enough El Niño events yet to fully understand
Q12) Why is predicting El Niño important?
El Niño’s impacts reach around the globe. As it changes the weather in
one part of the world, it has a domino effect in other places. These
linkages are known as teleconnections. Being able to better forecast El
Niño events will also help us predict its teleconnections.
Many scientists fear that global warming may be having an influence on
the severity of El Niño events.
Q13) Often El Niño events are preceded or followed by La Niña. What
did La Niña produce in 1998?
A dramatic increase in Atlantic hurricanes.
Q14) What were the 1997/8 El Niño and La Niña’s impacts on
During 1997, there were few Atlantic hurricanes. Before they could
develop, El Niño winds blew them apart. But by late 1998 El Niño was
over and a new regime was in charge: La Niña, effectively the opposite of
El Niño. Here, cold water welled up in the mid-Pacific. Data from pacific
buoys showed a dramatic fall in the surface water temp, a plunge of
nearly 8oC. It immediately became dry in Peru, and unusually wet in
Indonesia, quite the opposite of El Niño.
One of the main observations that scientists have made is a reduction in
the number of hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf states during El Niño,
but an increase during La Niña.
Q15) What were the impacts of Hurricane Bonnie?
When the hurricanes eventually came, they came with fearsome force.
Hurricane Bonnie, with winds up to 150mph, roared in from the ocean at
struck North Carolina, at a place that had already been struck twice by
hurricanes only two years before. Bonnie flooded streets and homes,
knocked down power lines and knocked cars sideways off the road.
Q16) How many hurricanes formed at the same time in the Atlantic in
October 1998, and which was the most dangerous?
Hurricane activity rose to alarming levels, with four in the Atlantic at the
same time: Karl, Ivan, Jeanne and Georges. Hurricane Georges was the
Q17) What was the impact of Hurricane Georges?
Headed straight for the Caribbean and North America. It left a trail of
destruction at every stop, from Puerto Rico to Cuba.
The Dominican Republic was hardest hit, with the rains causing swollen
rivers and mudslides across the islands. Rescuers found bodies piled up
in the mud. More than 300 were killed. Over 100,000 were left homeless.
After its rampage through the Caribbean, Georges headed straight for the
Florida Keys. Most holiday-makers were evacuated but about half the
population stayed. Luckily its impact on the Keys was less severe,
causing one death.
But Georges was not finished. It moved into the Gulf of Mexico, towards
the Mississippi/Alabama coastline. Dauphin Island, Alabama, was
particularly badly hit where 40 houses were flattened, new and old, by
90mph winds and huge waves on top of an 8ft storm surge. 30 miles
north, Mobile Bay, Alabama, was badly hit.
• Q18) When did Hurricane Mitch strike and what
were its impacts?
• After Georges, La Niña kept the hurricanes coming.
Three weeks later, in late October 1998, Hurricane
Mitch developed, a much bigger storm covering half the
Caribbean. It was a category 5, one of the biggest ever.
• Mitch dumped more rain and caused more flooding
damage in Central America than anything in living
• Across Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, 10,000
were killed and a million lost their homes.
• Disaster on this scale brings whole countries to a halt,
with survivors facing famine and disease. Mitch set the
economies of some of these countries back by over 30
• The violence of a hurricane such as Mitch may be a
result of global warming. The warmer our climate
becomes the more moisture evaporates from the
oceans into our atmosphere. More moisture means
• In 1982/3 and 1997/8 we’ve had the two strongest El
Niños of the century, and with 1998, an exceptionally
powerful La Niña.