El Niño: A threat from the ocean

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El Niño is becoming a more frequent visitor
The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a natural fluctuation of climate from year to year.

El Niño events occur irregularly every four to seven years, usually last for 12 to 18 months, and have been affecting the Pacific Basin for thousands of years.

The term El Niño refers to an extensive warming of the central and eastern Pacific that leads to a major shift in weather patterns, particularly across eastern Australia.

Scientists have observed an increased frequency of these events in the past decade.


When an El Niño event occurs, eastern Australia, parts of Asia, and southern Africa may be plunged into severe drought, while parts of South America and the west coast of the USA may suffer unusually heavy rain and floods.

The effects of El Niño can be devastating because of the associated droughts, floods, heat waves and bush fires, and corresponding impacts on agriculture, fisheries, and energy demand.

In the 1982-3 El Niño the fisheries industry off the Pacific coast of South America lost about $290 million as catches declined. Countries like Peru and Ecuador had their heaviest ever recorded rains (northern Peru receiving about 340 times the average figure) and suffered considerable flooding, as did part of the western USA.

Eastern Australia endured one of its worst ever droughts, resulting in a $2000 million loss in agricultural production, as well as bushfires and dust storms. Indonesia also had dry conditions, and the monsoon rains failed as far away as India.

Unlike El Niño, La Niña is associated with cooler weather. In La Niña years, eastern Australia tends to be wetter and cooler and tropical cyclone activity is located closer to the north-east coast.

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Wild ocean

It all began at Christmas...

El Niño got its name from Spanish-speaking fishermen from Chile and Peru who noticed that their catches of anchovies sometimes suddenly declined around Christmas time.

They named the event El Niño, which means the Christ child