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Wednesday, April 15, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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El Nino -- It's Been The Weather Event Of The Century

Seattle Times Science Reporter

The good: Much of the American Midwest enjoys the warmest February on record.

The bad: In east Africa, the largest-ever outbreak of Rift Valley Fever, a viral disease spread by mosquitoes, infects 89,000 and kills 250.

The unusual: Giant flying squid are spotted as far north as Newport, Ore.; an unusual algae bloom turns the Bering Sea an eerie, milky green; a tropical mola mola is glimpsed off Vashon Island.

The century's strongest El Nino has left a legacy that ranges across a broad cross-section of life - so much so, in fact, that it has infiltrated culture as much it has influenced climate. Even late-night comedy routines score laughs by blaming everything imaginable to it. Yet, despite the jokes, El Nino has had costly, often fatal consequences around the globe.

Commerce Secretary William Daley has said the price tag for this year's blockbuster episode will likely exceed the worldwide total of $10 billion recorded in the previous major El Nino event, in 1982-83.

Indeed, early statistics culled by The Seattle Times from the World Health Organization, United Nations, Federal Emergency Management Agency and wire services - among other sources - put the cost of the current El Nino episode at $3.3 billion and counting.

The death toll is approaching 7,000. The deaths resulted from flooding, droughts, hurricanes, mudslides and diseases such as malaria carried by mosquitoes that multiply in standing water left by El Nino storms.

Infrastructure has seen its share of destruction, including damaged roads, washed-out bridges, downed power lines and disrupted railways. They will cost billions to repair.

The devastation extended to wildlife. In various areas around the world, the image of a dead or dying sea lion became the plaintive poster child for this climatic event. In New Zealand, mortality rates reached up to 53 percent among some sea-lion pups. In January and February alone, 629 California sea lions stranded themselves along the state's beaches.

At its simplest, El Nino is a big puddle of warm water that lies in the Pacific Ocean along the equator and migrates east toward South America when trade winds get lazy. At its most complex, it's a climate phenomenon that redirects migration of commercially valuable fish, alters the timing and boosts the strength of hurricanes and spawns its own moisture-rich tropical storms.

Right now, it is close to signing off, a Samson deprived of his strength. The warm water is cooling, undermined by cooler waters rising from the depths. Next winter's follow-up act might be a La Nina event, which brings cooler and wetter winters to this region.

But the jury's still out.

However the year ends, its experience with El Nino is already memorable. A review of what has occurred demonstrates the breadth of its impact.

AFRICA

In summary

The good: Impoverished southern Africa, which had expected to be hammered by drought, was largely spared. South Africa's maize crop - down from last year's 8.5 million-metric-ton yield - still exceeded the 6.5 million-metric-ton threshold the country needs.

The bad: Thousands of head of livestock drowned in flash floods or succumbed to outbreaks of illness.

Grain in Ethiopia and coffee in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania were among the crops that faltered this year in drought conditions followed by heavy rains. Maize, the main staple in Kenya, was hit by drought at the time the grain fills out and by torrential rains at harvest time. The maize shortfall is estimated at 7 million bags. Sugar, rice and wheat yields amounted to just half of what Kenya needs.

Diminished crop returns and faltering tourism raise the specter of longer-term woes.

In terms of disease, Africa was the hardest hit continent.

As a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation began, a mysterious "viral soup" was blamed for rapid, grisly deaths. In the end, 89,000 people in Somalia and Kenya were sickened by Rift Valley Fever - the largest-ever outbreak of the ailment there. Some 250 died from the disease, while an equal number died from hemorrhagic fever, WHO said.

More than 2,000 deaths in northern African were attributed to drought, heavy rains and the onset of disease after sanitation-system failures.

The unusual: Three weeks of heavy rain merged two main rivers, creating an inland ocean in Somalia. Kenya saw an explosion in the population of orange-and-black beetles, which when crushed, release a toxin that can temporarily blind. In Rift Valley, salty Lake Nakuru was so freshened by El Nino rains that 1.5 million flamingos move there to feed.

ASIA

In summary

The good: The global impact of coffee losses in some areas may be muted by bumper crops recorded elsewhere, such as in Vietnam, according to Coffee Intelligence, an industry newsletter.

What does it mean locally? A Starbucks spokeswoman says the Seattle-based company is finding the supply and quality of specialty coffee it needs, although the company won't disclose how much more it might have to pay per pound.

The bad: Too little rain encourages wildfires. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore alone, the World Wildlife Fund estimates $1.34 billion in losses from wildfires, which burned through tinder-dry forests until they were partially extinguished by El Nino-delayed monsoons.

The unusual: Songbirds, choked by smoke and haze in Indonesia and Malaysia, fall silent.

SOUTH AMERICA

In summary

The good: Millions spent by the Peruvian government to dig ditches and spread plastic helped safeguard prehistoric monuments and adobe relics from torrential rains.

The bad: Colombia's National Federation of Coffee Growers had to trim 2 million bags from its 12-million-bag harvest forecast because of El Nino-related droughts.

Meanwhile, torrential rains caused destruction, drowning and disease. Tainted water supplies in Ecuador caused the number of cholera cases to balloon. In Brazil, an epidemic linked to heavy rains and legions of mosquitoes caused dengue cases to soar to seven times the level of the previous January.

Close to El Nino's ground zero, where in a typical year, warmed waters head toward South America's West Coast, commercially valuable anchovies moved north, following their food supply, phytoplankton, and slipped out of the grasp of fishermen. A fishing moratorium and the shifting anchovy migration caused a 78 percent drop in anchovy production in Peru.

The unusual: Flooding washed 123 corpses from their graves in Trujillo, Peru's third-largest city. Increased rain spurred more flowering of bamboo plants in Chile; the excessive number of blossoms helped feed a rat population explosion, which in turn caused an increase in cases of potentially fatal hantavirus.

NORTH AMERICA

In summary

The good: U.S. motorists enjoyed the lowest gas prices in history, and people in the Midwest and New England who relied on natural gas and oil during the winter could partly thank El Nino for cheaper heating bills.

The warmer-than-normal winter, a glut of crude oil on the market and disrupted demand from an economically pinched Asia caused oil prices to spiral downward this winter, the American Petroleum Institute said.

The warmest winter on record in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana benefited homeowners and businesses that heat with natural gas. Savings reached $1.35 billion in January alone, according to estimates by Rodney Weiher, chief economist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the Pacific Northwest, El Nino became a shorthand way to describe a benign, mostly warm, often dry winter season that coaxed bulbs to flower early and allowed honey-bee populations to explode.

The bad: Other parts of the country saw El Nino-powered storms usher in the new year with torrential rain, hurricanes, tornadoes and fatal ice storms, causing President Clinton to declare 18 disaster zones. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has paid out $167.1 million in federal assistance in the first three months of this year for El Nino-related storm damage.

California was battered in February by a succession of storms, a "rolling disaster" that struck various areas of the coast with heavy rains, which in turn triggered landslides, flooding in the wine country and unprecedented snow levels in the mountains. Overwhelmed treatment plants purged untreated water. Damage is estimated at $550 million, including a $117 million hit to the state's lettuce and artichoke crops and other agricultural industries.

It may seem bad, but the state has endured other, worse natural disasters. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for instance, cost the state $5.9 billion in damage; the toll in the 1994 Northridge quake reached $40 billion to $42 billion, which is still being paid off, said Jim Shebl, a spokesman in the California governor's office of Emergency Services.

New York was among the northeastern states and parts of Canada hammered by rain, ice storms, then flooding in early January. The result: devastated forests, with swaths of trees felled by ice, and power outages affecting 320,000 people in remote hamlets where dairy farming and logging reign. Eight hundred dairy cows, unmilked because of disrupted power, died after becoming infected. Count at least $25 million in infrastructure damages, then add another $34 million to pay employees who worked round the clock in response to freezing and flooding.

The unusual: El Nino leaves its fingerprint on winter in the Pacific Northwest by redrawing the path traveled by the jet stream, strong winds that guide where storms make landfall. The bottom arm of the cleaved jet stream, the subtropical storm track, directed a series of fatal storms at the California coast. Meanwhile, people in the Northwest peeled off overcoats and left umbrellas behind as the rains and storms landed south, or carried by the polar-storm branch of the jet stream, swept to the north.

Marty Ralph, a NOAA scientist doing El Nino research, received an up-close view of the rough weather this region avoided through survey flights on a plane designed to ride through hurricanes. The scientific team crisscrossed storm after storm to learn more about El Nino's effect on the direction and nature of West Coast storms.

"We saw evidence these storms were tapping moisture out of the tropics," Ralph said. "The winds were coming out of the south - as far south as the northern part of the tropical latitudes."

Added to that: In February, ocean temperatures off the California coast were a good 4 to 5 degrees warmer than usual. That translated to more moisture off the coast just as the storms moved in. On Feb. 3, the double whammy of the rain band within the jet stream and moisture off the coast delivered more than a foot of rain to the mountains above Big Sur in just 24 hours, Ralph said.

Elsewhere, the El Nino rain created strange, but sometimes welcome, changes. Lush flowers bloomed in the deserts of Arizona. New Mexico saw a boost of moist air thanks to El Nino-powered Hurricanes Nora and Linda, which brought cooling rains.

Off the West Coast of the United States, massive blobs of warm water that extended from California to Alaska brought mackerel, marlin and mahi mahi to areas where they are strangers. In Alaska, king crab died more quickly awaiting processing when kept in tanks of warmer-than-normal sea water.

Oddities also occurred among birds. Bird watchers not only in North America but also across the globe gushed about a bonanza of exotic fowl blown off course by strong winds or following food supplies to unfamiliar locales. Meanwhile, seabirds such as the common murre struggled, leaving chicks to starve when links in the ocean food chain snapped.

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. Southern California: a close look at El Nino .

. Put the spotlight on the waters of Southern California, and you'll see the magnitude of El Nino's effects. In this microcosm, disastrous consequences as well interesting developments come into focus.

. El Nino's effects .

. - Dolphin-pod population increased . - Subtropical species of Bryozoa, tiny aquatic animals sometimes mistaken for coral, washes ashore at Balboa Pier . - Tropical species of puffer fish captured inside San Pedro Harbor . - Green turtles spotted off Newport Beach . - Giant Humboldt "flying squid" spotted off Laguna Beach . - Mahi-mahi, yellow-fin tuna, albacore, blue-fin tuna - all associated with warmer waters - caught off Newport Beach and Dana Point . - Red tuna crabs seen off Newport Beach and Dana Point . - Water temperature off Newport Beach 4-6 degrees C warmer than in past 20 years. - Tides at Newport Harbor 10 percent higher, caused flooding on Balboa Island . - Severe rain and flooding at Newport Harbor followed by dramatic drop in salinity of seawater. Mussels, solitary tunicates, limpets, barnacles all but wiped out.

Diedtra Henderson's phone message number is 206-464-8259. Her e-mail address is: dhenderson@seattletimes.com

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El Nino waning

Scientists say El Nino is now on the downside. Compared with December, when it was at its peak, water temperatures are now 5 degrees F cooler, said Mike McPhaden, a scientist in charge of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's effort to monitor El Nino ocean warming.

Sophisticated buoys floating in the sea are picking up evidence that the event is being undermined from below as a slug of cold water rises, mixing with and cooling warmer waters at the surface.

"The seeds of the demise of this El Nino are in place," said Nick Bond, a research meteorologist affiliated with NOAA and the University of Washington. "The right things have to occur for it to go away completely."

Added McPhaden, with a bit more confidence: "The granddaddy of all events should probably be gone by the summertime."

What then? Forecasts differ.

As the cold water rises closer to the surface, it will continue to cool and freshen the warm water. Lackluster trade winds will spring back into action, pushing more warm water out of the way so more cold water can rise from the depths.

What's not clear is whether the cooling will stop when surface water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific reach a more-normal level, or whether the cooling train will keep on rolling, shifting climate into a La Nina regime.

Computer models are split. And there's the "spring barrier" to overcome, a time of year when little changes can make big differences.

The Climate Prediction Center - those folks at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction who stepped out on a limb months ago to predict this El Nino would be the strongest of the century - admit that computer models are soft in the spring. Their best guess is that next winter will be near normal, said Gerry Bell, a Climate Prediction Center meteorologist.

"What the models cannot do well is predict the end of one event and get you into another event. That's expecting too much from them. These forecasts are considered unreliable."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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