1982-1983 El Niño: The worst there ever was

Dark red shows the drastic rise in degrees Celcius of sea surface temperatures during the 1982-1983 El Niño. Courtesy of the Center for Climate Analysis.
The 1982-1983 El Niño was the strongest and most devastating of the century, perhaps the worst in recorded history. During that period, trade winds not only collapsed--they reversed. Its effects were long lasting as well. Twelve years later, a wave of warm water from the 1982 El Niño lived on (in 1994, it measured only eight inches high and traveled about five miles an hour).

It caused weather-related disasters on almost every continent. Australia, Africa and Indonesia suffered droughts, dust storms, and brush fires. Peru was hit with the heaviest rainfall in recorded history--11 feet in areas where 6 inches was the norm. Some rivers carried 1,000 times their normal flow.

The event was blamed for between 1,300 and 2,000 deaths and more than $13 billion in damage to property and livelihoods. During this period, the thermocline off the South American coast dropped to about 500 feet. On September 24, in just 24 hours, sea-surface temperatures along the coastal village of Paita, Peru shot up 7.2 degrees F.

There were also secondary problems caused by the 1982-1983 El Niño: encephalitis outbreaks on the east coast of the U.S., attributed to a warm, wet spring--perfect for mosquitoes; increased snake bites in Montana, as the hot, dry weather drove mice from high elevations downward in search of food and water--the rattlesnakes followed; a rise in bubonic plague in New Mexico, with a cool, wet spring providing favorable conditions for flea-ridden rodents; an increase in shark attacks off the Oregon coast, due to unseasonably warm sea temperatures; and a rash of spine injuries in California, as weather-altered coastal sea floors fooled surfers.

Some meteorologists have tied El Niño to above-normal temperatures recorded in Alaska and northwestern Canada--and a reduction in the salmon harvest. In the eastern U.S., it was the warmest winter in 25 years.

And perhaps the most striking effect of the 1982-1983 El Niño was recorded by David Salstein and Richard Rosten of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They found that the angular momentum of Earth shifted slightly as a result of changes in the normal pattern of the jet stream and trade winds. In late January, at El Niño's peak, the day length stretched by 0.2 milliseconds.

(Compiled with help from "Solving the Puzzle of El Niño" by Robert Gannon published in the September, 1986 issue of Popular Science.)

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