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El Niño's touch may have shaped biblical history

California damage in 1982

From Correspondent David Mattingly

October 13, 1997
Web posted at: 12:11 p.m. EDT (1611 GMT)

(CNN) -- El Niño and the record-breaking storms it produces have generated a whirlwind of news coverage in this decade.

But scientists say the history of this recurring weather phenomenon stretches back at least several centuries.

Few people paid attention in 1920 when meteorologist Sir Gilbert Walker claimed that warming water in the Pacific Ocean could be playing havoc with weather around the world.

But his proclamation would have come as no surprise to Peruvian fishermen, who had known about El Niño for hundreds of years. Every few years, their coastal waters would heat up, and their fish would disappear for cooler waters. The fishermen had no way of knowing when El Niño would ruin their season.

Watch the growth of warm water in the ocean (shown in red) highlighting this year's El Niño
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"There have been similar El Niños all the way back to 1650. The frequency, the return period of these, has varied over time," said Robert Ginsberg of the University of Miami.

El Niño -- named for the infant Jesus due to its usual arrival around Christmastime -- began to be a household name around the world during a major El Niño season in the early 1970s. Then, in 1982, the biggest El Niño in recent memory swept the world.

Coastal damage in 1982

Peruvian fishermen took another beating as the warm waves of El Niño took a 15 percent bite out of Peru's economy.

Droughts struck from Australia to southern Africa, bringing crop failures and famine.

The California coast took a billion-dollar beating from storms. Arizona cities got their average annual rainfall in a single day.

The ill winds of El Niño also blew in some good news in 1982 and '83, as a warm winter in the East and Midwestern United States saved some $500 million in heating costs for consumers.

Some researchers have gathered centuries-old accounts of weather phenomena and in the process have gone out on a scientific limb to suggest that El Niño's comings and goings were related to major climactic events in years past.

Some think that El Niño's long slump in the 1930s caused the drought that created America's Dust Bowl.

Boat named 'El Niño'

A California researcher suggested that unusually heavy rains due to an El Niño off-year swamped Lewis and Clark's expedition with 90 consecutive days of rain in 1806.

And after an Israeli scientist linked higher Middle Eastern rainfall levels to El Niño action, he speculated that the Pharaoh's biblical drought could have been caused by several years without El Niño's impact.

But even with the chaos brought by the last big El Niño, whose status as the weather event of the century may be challenged this year, at least a few modern-day Peruvian fishermen have kept their sense of humor about their losses. They set sail in a boat named El Niño.


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