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El Nino watch begins

CAMP SPRINGS, Maryland (CNN) -- Scientists are watching for clues that El Nino may be making a comeback in the Pacific Ocean.

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

But Kousky stopped short of declaring a 2002 El Nino a certainty.

NOAA's El Nino  Page

El Nino is the name for a weather condition marked by rising ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean linked to warm temperatures, increased rainfall, flooding, drought and wildfires.

The last major El Nino episode began in 1997 and lasted two years, triggering billions of dollars in crop and property damage from storms, droughts, and floods.

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

"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 Nino.

This year, absent an El Nino, torrential rains have dominated Indonesia's weather. Drier conditions would return with an El Nino, Kousky said.

In the United States, the Pacific Northwest could see a drier 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.

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

Some of the impacts of the last El Nino included:

-- 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 for fish, triggering a rash of starvation among seabirds and seals as their food sources disappeared for colder waters -- An inch of snow in Las Vegas in December, 1998

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

Climate historians have speculated that many significant events are linked to El Nino. The U.S. "Dust Bowl" of the 1930's coincided with an unusually long lapse between El Nino 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 Nino event.


• Snow, ice leave at least 14 dead


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