Thursday, July 16, 2009

El Niño Has Arrived. But What is El Niño?

According to Nature the lastest El Niño has begun in the Pacific. I got interested in this meteorological phenomenon back when I was living in California and coincidentally read Mike Davis' polemic Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World . While a bit over the top, it contains a great section on the history of large-scale meteorology including the discovery of El Niño. As I discuss in this article, El Niño is a multi-year cyclical phenomenon over the Pacific that affects sea-surface temperature and pressure from India to Argentina. What I think is so interesting about it from a philosophy of science perspective is that scientists can predict its evolution once a given cycle has formed, but a detailed causal understanding of what triggers a cycle or what ends it remains a subject of intense debate. See, for example, this page for an introduction to ths science and here for a 2002 article by Kessler which asks if El Niño is even a cycle. This case provides yet one more case where causal ignorance is overcome by sophisticated science and mathematics.

1 comment:

Caitlin said...

What's interesting about El Nino is the love/hate relationship it builds throughout the world. Parts of the world, such as California, love El Nino because it brings "wet winters." However, it has the adverse affect on Australia. There the country may suffer from another series of serious droughts.