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Scientists: Brace for a severe El Nino winter


Rain, storms in California, western South America

From Correspondent Dick Wilson

(CNN) -- Translated from Spanish, the phrase El Nino -- the name given to a weather phenomenon now occurring in the Pacific Ocean -- means "the little one" or, since it occurs around Christmastime, "the Christ child."

But the damage it can cause is far from little.

During an earlier episode in August 1983, high winds and heavy rains in the Arizona desert flooded homes, turned streets into streams and toppled power lines. Storms that winter destroyed 33 oceanfront homes in California.


Already this year, record snowfall in the Peruvian Andes forced the government to declare a national emergency in parts of the country.

And scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego warned Wednesday that precipitation patterns could be severely disrupted this winter in many parts of the United States.

New predictions from both government and private scientists say the latest El Nino could be severe one.

Scientists say El Nino is a natural weather cycle that disrupts ocean and atmospheric temperatures in the tropical Pacific. Ocean water temperatures have already risen five to 10 degrees in some areas, prompting concerns about marine life.


The effects of this disruption on weather around the globe can be devastating.

"Every piece of evidence we get as time goes along shows us El Nino (is) continuing to evolve, continuing to be a very powerful, very awesome event," says the institute's Nick Green. "It's like watching Mount St. Helens erupt in slow motion."

El Nino normally occurs every three to five years and can last up to 12 months.

Officials are forecasting that the southwestern and eastern United States could see as much as three times normal rainfall. Violent storms could pummel the California coastline. Residents in the northwestern states could suffer from lower than normal rainfall and possibly droughts.

Meanwhile, people living in the Southern Hemisphere near the Pacific are being warned to get ready for a wet and possibly dangerous holiday season near the end of the year.

The last bout with El Nino, in 1993 and 1994, was not a severe one. But those with longer memories may recall the devastation during 1983, which led to global damage estimated at $25 billion.


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