Lino Naranjo

Almost all the studies performed during the past century have shown that drought is not the result of a single cause. Instead, it is the result of many factors varying in nature and scales. For this reason, researchers have been focusing their studies on the components of the climate system to explain a link between patterns (regional and global) of climatic variability and drought.

Some drought patterns tend to recur frequently, particularly in the tropics. One such pattern is the El Niño and Southern Oscillation (ENSO). This chapter explains the main characteristics of the ENSO and its data forms, and how this phenomenon is related to the occurrence of drought in the world regions.

Originally, the name El Niño was coined in the late 1800s by fishermen along the coast of Peru to refer to a seasonal invasion of south-flowing warm currents of the ocean that displaced the north-flowing cold currents in which they normally fished. The invasion of warm water disrupts both the marine food chain and the economies of coastal communities that are based on fishing and related industries. Because the phenomenon peaks around the Christmas season, the fishermen who first observed it named it "El Niño" ("the Christ Child"). In recent decades, scientists have recognized that El Niño is linked with other shifts in global weather patterns (Bjerknes, 1969; Wyrtki, 1975; Alexander, 1992; Trenberth, 1995; Nicholson and Kim, 1997).

The recurring period of El Niño varies from two to seven years. The intensity and duration of the event vary too and are hard to predict. Typically, the duration of El Niño ranges from 14 to 22 months, but it can also be much longer or shorter. El Niño often begins early in the year and peaks in the following boreal winter. Although most El Niño events have many features in common, no two events are exactly the same. The presence of El Niño events during historical periods can be detected using climatic data interpreted from the tree ring analysis, sediment or ice cores, coral reef samples, and even historical accounts from early settlers. Many researchers are currently working to determine whether global warming would intensify or otherwise affect El Niño.

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