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.