December 22, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

El Niño – the Christ Child

Daffodils in Wollaton

Daffodils in Wollaton

I had an odd exchange of photos with my sister in America this week. I sent her daffodils from Nottingham; she sent me arctic conditions from New Mexico. Both photos can be linked to ‘El Niño’, I believe, a weather phenomenon “named after the birth of Christ because it traditionally occurs in Latin America around Christmas”, as the Guardian points out in one of the many articles that have been published about daffodils in December in the UK.

When thinking about this, I found an interesting post on the University of Nottingham blog called Weather Extremes which points out: “The BBC has produced a short report considering ‘BBC Why is it so mild?’ The feature explains that this year’s strong El Nino event might be playing a part in the present influx of warm air over the UK. However, no temperature records have been broken yet. The warmest day ever recorded in December was 18.3 degrees C in Scotland on 2 December 1948. The Met Office has also produced a blog on the mild start to December 2015.” I then carried on googling a bit when I saw a tweet by Paul Rogers which said “Good news: Sierra Nevada snowpack is now up to 86% of normal and growing, 98% in northen Sierra. Go El Nino Go!”

So what seems to be strange (rather than bad) news over here in Nottingham, seems to be (sort of) good news over there in the US – and all due to El Niño, it seems.

So where does this term ‘El Niño’ really come from, I wondered… To find out, I went to the El Niño theme page at NOAA, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and from there found my way to an interesting web page: “Where did the name El Niño come from?” So the little etymological Christmas story I re-tell below is the one told on that webpage (with some hyperlinks added).

El Niño – the story

“The name El Niño (referring to the Christ child) was originally given by Peruvian fisherman to a warm current that appeared each year around Christmas. What we now call El Niño seemed to them like a stronger event of the same type, and the usage of the term changed to refer only to the irregular strong events. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it was widely realized that this was not just a local Peruvian occurrence, but was associated with changes over the entire tropical Pacific and beyond.

The following quote is given in the introduction to an excellent (scholarly) book by George Philander of Princeton University (‘El Niño, La Niña and the Southern Oscillation‘, Academic Press, 1990). These are remarks quoted from Senor Federico Alfonso Pezet’s address to the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London in 1895.

Snowpack coming back in New Mexico

Snowpack coming back in New Mexico

In the year 1891, Senor Dr Luis Carranza, President of the Lima Geographical Society, contributed a small article to the Bulletin of that Society, calling attention to the fact that a countercurrent flowing from north to south had been observed between the ports of Paita and Pacasmayo.

The Paita sailors, who frequently navigate along the coast in small craft, either to the north or the south of that port, name this countercurrent the current of ‘El Niño’ (the child Jesus) because it has been observed to appear immediately after Christmas.

As this countercurrent has been noticed on different occasions, and its appearance along the Peruvian coast has been concurrent with rains in latitudes where it seldom if ever rains to any great extent, I wish, on the present occasion, to call the attention of the distinguished geographers here assembled to this phenomenon, which exercises, undoubtedly, a very great influence on the climatic conditions of that part of the world.

The name El Niño now refers to the warm phase of a large oscillation in which the surface temperature of the central/eastern part of the tropical Pacific varies by up to about 4°C, with associated changes in the winds and rainfall patterns. The complete phenomenon is known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, abbreviated ENSO. The warm El Niño phase typically lasts for 8-10 months or so. The entire ENSO cycle lasts usually about 3-7 years, and often includes a cold phase (known as La Niña) that may be similarly strong, as well as some years that are neither abnormally hot nor cold. However, the cycle is not a regular oscillation like the change of seasons, but can be highly variable in strength and timing. At present we do not fully understand what causes these changes in the ENSO cycle. […]

The first real description of El Niño/Southern Oscillation in terms of physical mechanisms was by Prof Jacob Bjerknes of the Univ of California, Los Angeles in 1969.”

I thought that was an interesting and seasonal story to spread around a bit. And on that note:

Season’s greetings, whenever, whatever and wherever that season may be!



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