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Every year in late December, a southward-moving current warms the water along the Pacific coast of Peru. Because the warm current arrives around Christmas, the Peruvians named it El Nino, “boychild.” Until the mid-1970s, El Nino was an unrecognized local phenomenon, until scientists began to realize that El Nino, later named El Nino Southern 5 Oscillation (ENSO), is part of a huge ocean and atmosphere system that is felt as far away as Australia and Indonesia.
Every few years the El Nino current is warmer than normal, causing greater ocean warming and consequently changes in the normal patterns of sea and surface temperatures. The resulting changes in atmospheric pressure affect trade wind speeds and the location of the largest thunderstorms, thus affecting weather patterns around the world. The shift in location of the Pacific’s largest thunderstorms, which usually occur from the Western Pacific to the Central Pacific, changes global weather patterns because the thunderstorms pump air into the atmosphere in different places than normal. The result is a shift in the location of high- and low-pressure areas, wind patterns, and the paths followed by storms.
From 1982 to 1983 the El Nino condition caused greater than average precipitation along the U.S. West Coast and sent five hurricanes to French Polynesia, which normally goes years without hurricanes. That same year, El Nino was linked to floods in Louisiana, Florida, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and to droughts in Hawaii, Mexico, Southern Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia.
In response to the 1982-83 global weather disruption, the World Meteorological Organization initiated the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program. The goal of the 10-year program is to gain a better understanding of El Nino so scientists can forecast future El Nino episodes and their likely results.