Nations Prep for Strongest El Nino of This Century

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From the frenzied trading pits at Chicago's Board of Trade to flood-ravaged Europe and the fire-blackened slopes of the Peruvian Andes, the world is feeling the wake-up stretch of the tropical Pacific's "little child," El Nino.

And scientists are warning that it may emerge as the strongest El Nino of the century.

Unlike past El Ninos, however, climate forecasters saw this one's rising well ahead of time, allowing countries to begin preparing for the dramatic weather changes El Nino brings. In Peru, the government recently closed its anchovy fishery to ensure that a sufficient number of fish survive to rebuild the fishery after El Nino passes. Officials have stockpiled fuel and food in regions hardest hit by El Nino in 1982-83, increased the country's disaster budget, and even moved families out of flood-prone areas. In California, officials statewide are inspecting everything from pier pilings to water diversion channels to prepare for what forecasters say will be a heavier-than-normal rainy season. As their tools and techniques improve, researchers say they hope to turn this year's general "it's coming" into accurate forecasts of El Nino's intensity and even of its impact on crop yields or river flows in specific regions. The goal of such forecasts is to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 1982-83 El Nino. That event "had huge economic consequences," says Nicholas Graham, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California in San Diego. In developing countries, the floods, drought, and crop damage that year's event brought not only were costly, he says, but prompted large numbers of people to move from stricken rural areas into already overcrowded cities. Already this year, wheat, soy bean, and cocoa prices are climbing in anticipation of El Nino's peak impact on regions that grow those crops. But the early notice of El Nino's advance gives emergency planners time to prepare. This week in Harare, Zimbabwe, meteorologists are meeting with officials from countries in southern Africa to lay out the latest forecast and plan responses. For all the preparations, however, El Nino still has an ability to humble forecasters. Although the first warnings of El Nino's onset came as early as last December and January, "nobody was ready for the severity of this event," says Dr. Graham. "It caught us by surprise and left us a little chagrined. …