Quotes from El Niño Researchers

(Yakima (Washington) superintendent, June 1977)

"A forecast is a forecast. It's not a guarantee."

"Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get."

Mary Voice
National Climate Centre, Melbourne, Australia

     "During my career in climate services in Australia, a major hurdle has been jumped by the temperamental thoroughbred named El Niño. El Niño has escaped from the corral of the scientific world and is now running free in the community. Over the past decade, a significant section of the Australian community has heard of El Niño and knows that it is linked to the Australian droughts. Many people in climate-sensitive industries have a broad understanding of the Australian consequences of El Niño and also its temperamental behavior. This is a major step forward for a country like Australia, so strongly affected by El Niño."

     "Like all new theories released into the domain of human communication (the media, word of mouth, etc.), and like that thoroughbred just over a hurdle, we must now keep its head pointed in the right direction. As scientific communicators, we must ensure that every storm and every seasonal fluctuation is not attributed to El Niño through false enthusiasm. We must hold onto the reigns and point our thoroughbred El Niño in the direction of cautious utility for the community, rather than the wild speculation of the racecourse betting ring. This need will increase, as more and more "punters" join in the predictions of the future track record of El Niño."

Timothy P. Barnett
Scripps Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, California

     "In the late 1970's, climate research was a poorly thought-of branch of science, and attempts to predict climate were generally looked upon as thoroughly disreputable. So, in 1979-80, when Klaus Hasselmann and I used some fancy statistics to show El Niño events off Peru, we expected to take some heat. No one could shoot us down technically, so they merely dismissed the results. The same methods were used to show that the huge 1982-83 event was predictable a year in advance. At that point, a few science program managers in Washington, DC, began to listen; they saw the prediction ability as justification for future large programs."

     "...very diverse approaches to prediction all said the same thing: moderate to large ENSO events are predictable at lead times of roughly a year or more. These claims, which were again treated with disbelief by many, were backed up by real-time, public forecasts covering the period from 1986 to the present. Perhaps the most interesting of these forecasts was the call for the first major cold event in 15 years to occur in 1988. This forecast was made during a talk in the autumn of 1987, at the height of a major warm event. The listening audience was highly skeptical. But the success of that forecast, and the numerous others made since by the several methods, leaves little room to doubt our ability to predict big ENSO events. The real questions that remain are (a) "How far in advance can we predict?" and (b) "How can we say in advance that the forecast will be a good (or poor) one?"

     "Perhaps the most gratifying part of the forecast business is our recently demonstrated ability to take the long-range forecasts of equatorial Pacific water temperatures and use them to force an atmospheric model, thereby making global climate predictions up to a year in advance, or longer. This approach has shown substantial skill, not only in the tropics, but also over midlatitude regions of North and South America, parts of Asia, and Australia. So, in less than 15 years, we have gone from statistical forecasts of water temperature off Peru (that most folks put no faith in) to a situation where we now routinely make skillful, operational forecasts of global climate with highly sophisticated physical models based solely on our ability to forecast equatorial sea surface temperatures."

Stephen E. Zebiak
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, New York

     "El Niño has been a key player in the earth's climatic variability for a very long time, but has only very recently become appreciated in scientific, economic, and social terms. Scientifically, the study of El Niño has led us to a genuinely new understanding of the nature and strength of the interplay between the earth's oceans and atmosphere, and the implications this has for all aspects of climate. The recent advances in predicting El Niño, though limited, are exciting, as they pave the way for more applied forecasts that can be put to immediate use in agriculture, water resources, and a myriad of other applications. There is much about climate and its impacts that is not yet understood but from the study of El Niño it is already possible to foresee new uses of climate information in aspects of human activities that may benefit societies worldwide. It has been, and remains, a pleasure to participate in this research."

Ants Leetmaa
Climate Prediction Center, National Weather Service, NOAA
Washington DC

     "We are fortunate to work in a time when nature has given us strong ENSO events (to motivate and provide for our support), a few odd events to provide humility, hard-won observations to limit theoretical speculation, physical models that capture essential real (and imaginary) physics, enough computer power (so we don't have to think too much), to explore new regimes, and good friends to work and compete with. The baby that was born, a fledging ability to forecast El Niño, is something quite remarkable. This is not the end, but the beginning of a journey to understand the irregular heartbeats of ever-present climate variability."

J. Shukla
Institute of Global Environment and Society, Calverton, Maryland

     "El Niño is a good example to illustrate that there is indeed predictability in the midst of chaos."

Peter Webster
Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Studies, University of Colorado,
Boulder, Colorado

     "It is clear that the study of the joint interannual variability of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system has demanded the creation of a new breed of scientist, one who is equally adept in understanding processes in the ocean and in the atmosphere. This is an important change in the paradigm of scientific concentrations that have channeled our thinking for many centuries. However, this new amphibious beast has more responsibility than merely understanding common vagaries of two spheres instead of one. The amphibian is at the forefront of a revolution in the very fabric of human endeavor and humankind."

Henry F. Diaz
Environmental Research Laboratories, NOAA, Boulder, Colorado

     "Great strides have been made in the last 15 years in understanding the El Niño phenomenon. This improved understanding has translated into more accurate and reliable predictions of El Niño occurrences, and of the far-flung influences on the climate in many areas of the world engendered by this quasi-periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean. However, one is reminded of the story of Prometheus and the gift of fire: a tool of great promise to humanity, but one with a sharp double edge! It is vitally important that we learn how to use our improved knowledge wisely."

Richard Barber
Duke University Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, North Carolina

     "El Niño has taught two lessons that will endure. The first is that large-scale variability such as El Niño is not a disaster, anomaly, or cruel twist of fate; it is how Earth works. To mature and live harmoniously in the Earth system, human culture must adapt to Earth's rhythms and use natural variability to its advantage."


All quotes courtesy of:
Glantz, Michael H. 1996. Currents of change: El Niño's impact on climate and Society. Cambridge University Press. 194 pp.

Michael Glantz is the Program Director for the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado