Why Do They Call It ‘El Nino?’

On Christmas eve I was gifted with a book whose peaceful title belied much of the fascinating information it contained. ‘Pacific’ by the award-winning author Simon Winchester, answered many questions for those of us who reside in proximity to our planet’s largest body of wáter but I never would have guessed that it would have contained the centuries old answer to the question that is asked in this article’s title. Sit back and enjoy the ride as I did.

“Heat, in immeasuarable quantities, is generally stored in the world’s oceans.The Pacific, which occupies one third of the planet’s entire surface area, is responsable then for storing a very great deal of it. It does so most especially where the sea is subject to the most intense solar heating, along that wide band of ocean between the tropics and along the equator, a band that shifts to the north and south as the seasons change. Within this well-defined area, the intense heat causes the seawater to evaporate and the warm air above it to rise so gigantic banks of cloud form and billow skyward. It is where all the cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are born. It is where the monsoons begin their lives. Such occurrences seem to be becoming both more frequent and increasingly irregular. The timing these days is perhaps somehow linked to the undeniable warming of the ocean, as the global climate (for whatever reason, man-made or not) continues to alter.”

“These oceanic events have long been marked initially by sudden strange changes in the business of fishing. As far back as the late sixteenth century, Peruvian fishermen operating out of Chimbote (close to Lima) would make careful note of the changes in the local fish population. Chimbote was once known as the World Anchovy Capital because of the small, silvery and memorably pungent anchoveta fish that were to be found in staggering abundance in the cold waters just twenty miles offshore. The abundance of the fish was a fitful thing though as the Chimbote fishermen came to know all too well. Once every five or six years, with some ragged regularity, and most usually in November or December, the anchoveta would all but vanish. One day there would be darts of quicksilver shoals all around; the next, nothing but the blue silence of the deep. And there was another thing: the cold waters offshore, which would bring in the evening fogs so welcome in the seaside desert towns such as Chimbote, would… at the same time… become mysteriously warmer. The fogs would vanish, too, and the skies would magically clear.”

“The want of catch would frústrate the fishermen, to be sure and they would curse their empty nets, The absence of fish had an effect that then spread insidiously all the way up the food chain. The gannets, cormorants, and pelicans that fed on the anchovies died, or else they flew long distances in search of food, abandoning their nests and leaving their waiting chicks to die in their stead. Squid, turtles, even small sea mammals would pass away also, either because of their intolerance of the warmer wáter or becasue of the sudden strange voids in the food chain, spawned by the lack of anchovies, Then, compounding the misery, large numbers of these dead creatures would float to the surface and create small islands of decay, the foul gasses they emitted so acidic as to blíster the hulls of the fishermen’s boats,”

“The loss of anchovies was an economic disaster; the smorgasboard of other deaths and absences made the event curious and more sinister, Because the happenings invariably arrived around the anniversary of Christ’s birth, the fishermen would name it, with a bitter and sardonic humor, El Nino de Navidad, the ‘Christmas Child.’

As we do with many things in our modern world, we’ve shortened what the Peruvians originally called it. After reading Winchester’s fascinating exposition, I wondered how many people living in this century know why we call this regularly occuring climatic phenomenon by such, in our vernacular, non-offensive name. We’re glad we could share this information with you. Now you know.

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