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NOAA scientist watches for new El Niņo

CAMP SPRINGS, Maryland (CNN) -- A United States government researcher predicted Thursday that El Niņo conditions may return to the Pacific Ocean this year.

Vernon Kousky, a climate specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said warming oceans and increasing cloud cover in the tropical Pacific may be the first clues that El Niņo could affect the world's weather by mid-year.

But Kousky stopped short of declaring a 2002 El Niņo a certainty -- or predicting its impact if it does appear.

In the "El Niņo" weather phenomenon, ocean temperatures periodically rise in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, triggering a chain of weather events that take warm temperatures and high rainfall levels to the west coasts of North and South America, and the southeastern United States.

El Niņo is linked to weather changes from Indonesia to the Mediterranean. The last major El Niņo episode began in 1997 and lasted two years, triggering billions of dollars in crop and property damage from storms, droughts and floods.

In the last El Nino sequence, effects were felt in many parts of the world. Click here  to review some of them.

In late 1998, an episode of "La Niņa" -- unusual cooling of those same tropical Pacific waters -- led to a reversal of weather conditions. During La Niņa, drought prevailed in areas of the United States that had been drenched by El Niņo.

"It seems most likely that warm-episode conditions will develop in the tropical Pacific over the next three to six months," said Kousky. If so, Indonesia would likely see changes by summer. That nation suffered extreme drought and a rash of wildfires during the last El Niņo.

This year, without an El Niņo, torrential rains have dominated Indonesia's weather. Drier conditions would return with an El Niņo, Kousky said.

In the United States, the Pacific Northwest -- also gripped by drought -- could see a wetter autumn. Southern California and the U.S. Gulf Coast could also see above-average rainfall by next winter, Kousky said. The Northern Plains might see an unusually warm winter in 2002-2003.

Picture not yet clear

Picture not yet clear

Kousky, many of whose prior El Niņo predictions have proven accurate, is hedging his bets. "It is too early to predict if this El Niņo might develop along the same lines as the 1997-98 episode, or be weaker," he said.

Some of the impacts of the last El Niņo episode included:

- Widespread wildfires in Indonesia, producing choking smoke over much of Southeast Asia.

- Mudslides and floods in southern California.

- Drastic, temporary changes in feeding and migrations patterns of fish, triggering a rash of starvation among seabirds and seals as their food sources swam to colder waters.

- An inch of snow in Las Vegas in December 1998.

"El Niņo" -- Spanish for the Christ child -- was so named by Peruvian fishermen who noticed that its greatest effects on the Pacific Ocean tended to occur around Christmas.

Climate historians have speculated that many significant events are linked to El Niņo. The U.S. "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s coincided with an unusually long lapse between El Niņo events. The torrential Oregon rains -- which nearly finished off the Lewis and Clark expedition in the winter of 1805 -- took place during a major El Niņo event.


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