SEATTLE(AP) -- In the early 1980s, scientists hoped satellites would be the answer to determining how changes in the ocean affect the Earth's weather. ``We had zero predictive ability back then,'' said Michael McPhaden, director of a scientific team at Seattle's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But satellites didn't prove to be the answer. An eruption of El Chichon volcano in Mexico shot enough dust into the atmosphere to disrupt satellite measurements.
As a result, scientists were caught unaware by an El Nino in 1982-83. ``It turned out to be the El Nino of the century, up until this last one,'' McPhaden said.
The El Nino weather phenomenon last year was one of the strongest on record, causing an estimated 23,000 deaths and $32 billion in damages worldwide, scientists say.
``It was in the category of a super El Nino,'' McPhaden said.
And a network of ocean buoys now is helping scientists improve their accuracy in predicting the effects of El Nino and La Nina.
McPhaden's lab monitors information transmitted via satellite from 70 weather buoys in an 8,000-mile belt along the equator from New Guinea to Panama, the world's largest system of ocean-based weather stations.
His report on El Nino of 1997-98 was published in the current issue of Science magazine.
The Tropical Atmosphere Ocean array was completed in 1994 to identify, forecast, and studying El Nino and the mirror phenomenon La Nina, a colder, wetter weather pattern that follows El Nino.
``Our ability to forecast all this with any degree of accuracy is only a few years old,'' McPhaden said.
The term El Nino, meaning "the child," was coined by Peruvian fishermen who recognized more than a hundred years ago that changes in Pacific Ocean currents disrupted their catch every three to seven years around Christmas time.
Scientists use the term ``Southern Oscillation'' to describe both the warming of the Pacific Ocean in El Nino and the cooling that typically follows with La Nina.
The precise cause remains unknown.
The Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere program was formed in the early 1980s by an international consortium of scientists to improve understanding of oceanic effects on weather.
The network of weather buoys was first suggested by Stan Hayes, another government scientist in Seattle. At first, many thought it would never be funded.
``It was kind of a revolutionary idea,'' McPhaden said.
Hayes put out a few buoys as a pilot study in the eastern equatorial Pacific in 1984. By 1987, he had 15 buoys, and international scientific support ``prompted him to shoot for the moon,'' McPhaden said.
Hayes then obtained funding for the entire system.
Each buoy costs about $50,000, and a maintenance ship carries 21 crew members who fix and replace them as needed.
``They start at one end and, by the time they get to the other end, it's time to start over again,'' McPhaden said.
The program has gone through about 700 buoys and costs $8 million a year. ``This country has spent billions of dollars observing outer space,'' said Tim Barnett, an oceanographer and climate change researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. ``This is the first permanent system that even begins to look at the planet we live on.''
McPhaden hopes the success in tracking and predicting El Nino will lead to deployment of more weather buoys around the globe.
After putting one buoy 1,000 miles west of Seattle, he is seeking money to put more in the area, where ocean currents directly affect Pacific Northwest weather. Another dozen buoys have been placed around the equator in the Atlantic.
The more buoys, he believes, the better he and his colleagues can predict climatic changes well enough to reduce the resulting damage and death.
Return to the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water News Homepage