The cold Humboldt Current of the Pacific Ocean flows toward the equator along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru in South America. When the current approaches the equator, the westward-flowing trade winds cause nutrient-rich cold water along the coast to rise from deeper depths to more shallow ones. This upwelling of water has economic repercussions. Fishing, especially for anchovies, is a major local industry.
Every year during the months of December and January, a weak, warm countercurrent replaces the normally cold coastal waters. Without the upwelling of nutrients from below to feed the fish, fishing comes to a standstill. Fishers in this region have known the phenomenon for hundreds of years. In fact, this is the time of year they traditionally set aside to tend to their equipment and await the return of cold water. The residents of the region have given this phenomenon the name of El Niño, which is Spanish for "the child," because it occurs at about the time of the celebration of birth of the Christ child.
While the warm-water countercurrent usually lasts for two months or less, there are occasions when the disruption to the normal flow lasts for many months. In these situations, water temperatures are raised not just along the coast, but for thousands of kilometers offshore. Over the last few decades, the term El Niño has come to be used to describe these exceptionally strong episodes and not the annual event. During the past 60 years, at least ten El Niños have been observed. Not only do El Niños affect the temperature of the equatorial Pacific, but the strongest of them impact global weather.
The processes that interact to produce an El Niño involve conditions all across the Pacific, not just in the waters off South America. Over 60 years ago, Sir Gilbert Walker, a British scientist, discovered a connection between surface pressure readings at weather stations on the eastern and western sides of the Pacific. He noted that a rise in atmospheric pressure in the eastern Pacific is usually accompanied by a fall in pressure in the western Pacific and vice versa. He called this seesaw pattern the Southern Oscillation. It was later realized that there is a close link between El Niño and the Southern Oscillation. In fact, the link between the two is so great that they are often referred to jointly as ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation).
During a typical year, the eastern Pacific has a higher pressure than the western Pacific does. This east-to-west pressure gradient enhances the trade winds over the equatorial waters. This results in a warm surface current that moves east to west at the equator. The western Pacific develops a thick, warm layer of water while the eastern Pacific has the cold Humboldt Current enhanced by upwelling. However, in other years the Southern Oscillation, for unknown reasons, swings in the opposite direction, dramatically changing the usual conditions described above, with pressure increasing in the western Pacific and decreasing in the eastern Pacific. This change in the pressure gradient causes the trade winds to weaken or, in some cases, to reverse. This then causes the warm water in the western Pacific to flow eastward, increasing sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific. The eastward shift signals the beginning of an El Niño.
Scientists try to document as many past El Niño events as possible by piecing together bits of historical evidence, such as sea-surface temperature records, daily observations of atmospheric pressure and rainfall, fisheries` records from South America, and the writings of Spanish colonists dating back to the fifteenth century. From such historical evidence we know that El Niños have occurred as far back as records go. It would seem that they are becoming more frequent. Records indicate that during the sixteenth century, an El Niño occurred on average every six years. Evidence gathered over the past few decades indicates that El Niños are now occurring on average a little over every two years. Even more alarming is the fact that they appear to be getting stronger. The 1997–1998 El Niño brought copious and damaging rainfall to the southern United States, from California to Florida. Snowstorms in the northeast portion of the United States were more frequent and intense than in most years.