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El Niño Events of the 80s, 90s, and Today

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“We play all the songs from the '80s, '90s, and today!” Radio stations across the country have been using this line for years. If you’ve ever listened to any of them, you’ve probably noticed a little bit of change in popular music over the years.

Like the music we listen to, El Niño and the technology that’s used to predict and study it have changed too. In case you missed it, El Niño is the warming of the Pacific Ocean’s waters that can cause irregular weather patterns. Our friends at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been working diligently to anticipate what El Niño will bring to areas across the continental United States this winter. Here’s a look back at El Niño and the technology used to predict its impacts in the 80s, 90s, and today:

Back in 1982, when songs like Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” topped the Billboard charts, El Niño brought snowstorms and heavy rain to California, and droughts and warmer-than-average weather patterns to other parts of the country.

Four severe storms originating in the Pacific struck California over less than a week’s span.1 They extended along all areas of the state, causing dangerous landslides and rockslides. Forty of California’s 58 counties received major disaster declarations for these storms, and homes and roads across the state were destroyed. 

Didn’t they know that there was a possibility of historic-level flooding thanks to El Niño’s warmer ocean waters? No, the prediction technology and the process to predict and analyze El Niño events weren’t quite there yet. The satellites and buoy system NOAA uses to analyze the Pacific Ocean temperatures were brand new.2 El Niño wasn’t infamous until the winter of 1982-83 made it so.

A story in the Los Angeles Times written at the time referred to El Niño as “a strange, periodic warming trend in the Pacific,"3 but researchers and the media didn’t have much more to go on. Research on the warming and cooling cycle of the ocean was still ongoing and the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere program (the predecessor to the current program known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation Observing System) didn’t come into being until 1985.4

Fast-forward 15 years to 1997. An old favorite artist is back with an old favorite song. Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” remake was the most popular song on the Billboard charts that year. El Niño, not to be outdone by Sir Elton, brought severe tornadoes to an unlikely place: the Sunshine State of Florida.

February 1998, the middle of El Niño, saw the strongest and most damaging tornadoes in Florida’s history. Seven tornadoes swirled across central Florida in the late night and early morning hours of February 22 and 23, when many people had turned off their televisions and radios and snuggled into bed. The worst of the bunch, an F3 on the Fujita scale, had maximum wind speeds of 206 miles per hour and traveled approximately 28 miles.5

By this time, NOAA had started using their drifting buoys that measure things like sea surface temperature (8-12 inches deep), subsurface temperature (100 meters deep), and the ocean’s color. They also started using a moored buoy system that transmits this data to satellites and back to shores across the globe.6

It’s now 2015 and nearly 18 years since the last severe El Niño event. The Billboard charts aren’t just about what’s most played on the radio; they now factor in downloads and streaming data. Right now, Adele’s latest hit “Hello,” is leading the charts.

The Climate Prediction Center still uses their moored and drifting buoys to predict and analyze the ocean, but they also make good use of the Voluntary Observing Ship Program–designed to essentially crowdsource ocean information from ships that head through the major shipping routes in the Northern Atlantic and Pacific. NOAA maintains an entire suite of equipment to analyze all the information coming in from these channels.7

What does El Niño have in store for this year? NOAA projects wetter-than-average conditions across the southern United States and less precipitation in the north. Droughts in California may improve, but too much rain at any one time after a drought can cause flash flooding and mudslides or landslides across these areas.

While our music choices have changed and the technology that predicts events like El Niño have improved, the danger of severe weather, flooding, and droughts remains. If the experts are right, this year’s El Niño may just top the charts.

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Sources

  1. “California coast hit by 4th storm amid a cleanup:” January 29, 1983 article from The New York Times
  2. NOAA's role in El Niño Research, Monitoring and Prediction
  3. "El Niño keeps getting stronger, raises chance of drenching rains:" October 15, 2015 article from the Los Angeles Times
  4. NOAA's Tropical Ocean Observing System
  5. Service Assessment of Central Florida Tornado Outbreak: February 1998 from NOAA, United States Department of Commerce, and the National Weather Service
  6. NOAA's Global Drifter Program
  7. NOAA’s El Niño/Southern Oscillation Observing System
Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:21