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El Nino : Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker
by J. Madeleine Nash
Warner Books, 2002

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But not alone has this Leviathan left his pre-Adamite traces in the stereotype plates of nature, and in limestone and marl bequeathed his ancient bust; but upon Egyptian tablets, whose antiquity seems to claim for them an almost fossiliferous character, we find the unmistakable imprint of his fin. HERMAN MELVILLE, Moby Dick


Gary LaCombe was exhausted. For a long moment he just stood at the top of his driveway and stared into the stream of mocha-colored water swirling around his feet. "Maybe we can get the county to help us," said his wife, Phyllis, who was just as tired as he was.

Around that time, from somewhere high above, came a series of sharp reports that sounded a lot like rifle fire. Near the top of the steep-sided canyon that angled up behind the house, Gary figured, big trees must be falling, probably Douglas firs whose shallow roots had lost their grip on waterlogged soil. Far and wide, the scent that wafted from those broken evergreen boughs invested the air with a mysterious fragrance. The odd thing was, there was no wind. Trees usually fall, Gary reflected, when there's wind.

It was late on Friday night, February 6, 1998. In northern California the winter-storm season was in full swing, and the La-Combes and their neighbors had been waging a nonstop struggle to keep culverts and creek beds clear of rocks, mud, and debris; otherwise these conduits would overflow and send water spilling into yards, driveways, houses, and streets.

The past week had been particularly trying, with no more than a day's break between storms of unusual intensity. As a result, the Russian River was threatening to sweep over River Road, the two-lane artery that connects Rio Nido to Santa Rosa on the east and Guerneville on the west. If the river rose just another 5 feet, Gary and Phyllis well knew, road access to Rio Nido could be cut off for days.

Like most other Californians, Gary and Phyllis had heard about the 1997-98 El Niño, and although they had not paid a great deal of attention to the specifics, they were expecting the winter to be wet. To them, wet meant that the dry gully behind their house would fill with water, earning the nickname Phyllis had given it, White Water. To them, wet meant that the Russian River into which White Water emptied was certain to overflow.

From its headwaters above Ukiah to the small town of Jenner, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean, the Russian River is fed by numerous tributaries. Only a few of them are large enough to bear names, among them Austin Creek, Mark West Creek, Big Sulphur Creek, Dry Creek, Fife Creek, and Cazadero Creek. In reality, water flows into the Russian River the way blood flows into veins, through myriad capillaries that drain a 1,450-square-mile basin. Many of these capillaries, like White Water, are what locals refer to as "winter creeks," because they run with water only during the rainy season.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Russian River has defined the rhythms of life in Rio Nido, a shady hideaway whose name in Spanish means River Nest. During much of the year, the water in the river is low enough to expose wide, gravelly beaches where families gather to picnic and swim. Under the hot summer sun children gather blackberries turned dark and sweet, and adults angle for bass and the occasional trout in deep pools shaded by the rampant growth of willows and alders. Osprey and eagles are often sighted soaring overhead.

During the winter rainy season, however, the Russian River turns into a sullen, surging torrent. First the beaches disappear, then the willows and alders, then entire stretches of River Road. In Rio Nido, and nearby Guerneville as well, some low-lying buildings bear watermarks that extend right up to the rooflines. In that respect, the LaCombes were lucky. Their house was situated in Upper Canyon Three, well above the river's flood zone.

Rio Nido is not exactly a town, just a whimsical hodgepodge of houses that seem to have sprouted, like mushrooms, from the forest floor. Ferns grow in pots along mossy railings. A glittering vest of abalone shells encircles a thick-waisted tree. In places, creeks run under porches, and redwoods seem to grow up through houses. Underfoot is a soft padding of russet needles that muffles noise; overhead arches a deep green canopy that diffuses sunlight. The scent of bay permeates everything.

Rio Nido sauntered into life in the 1920s as a resort community, famous for its lively dances. Over the years, a few dozen San Francisco craftsmen and their families built simple cabins there, which they used mainly as summer and weekend retreats. Then, in the 1960s, Rio Nido, like many of California's backwoods haunts, started attracting a free-spirited population of artists and hippies, who lived there year-round. A bit later, other sorts of people, older people, with steady jobs in nearby towns, also began moving in.

The area had been extensively logged in the nineteenth century, so that save for a few protected stands, all of the trees in the area were second growth. Guerneville, in fact, had once been known as "Stump Town." One of the giant trees processed by its sawmills measured more than 300 feet tall and 70 feet in circumference. In very short order, it was converted into six hundred thousand roofing shingles. Had this same tree been sawn into lumber instead, observed a contemporary, "it would have easily made fifteen thousand feet...sufficient to fence with a five-board fence a quarter section of land, to have built a two-story house of ten rooms upon it and a barn large enough to hold one hundred tons of hay and afford accommodations for ten horses, and there would have been enough firewood left to last a family two years."

Gary and Phyllis had bought their house in 1987, around the time they married. It was his first marriage, her second. Both of them were well aware that River Road had flooded the year before, so they weren't wild about the idea of living in Rio Nido. But then their real-estate agent told them about a house that was on the market for $79,000. "It's a pretty house," the agent said. Of course, that's not what Phyllis thought when she saw it. Renters had been living there for months, and as far as she could see, they'd trashed the place. "You can find a filthy, dirty house like that in New York City anytime," she objected in a whisper. "This is California!"

For Phyllis, Gary knew, that was the ultimate insult; she had grown up in New York City but had left, with no desire to live there again. "But hon," he protested, "this house is beautiful!" With the help of Phyllis's daughter, Michelle, Gary won the argument. And it was a beautiful house: two stories, skylights, floor-to- ceiling windows, a spacious kitchen, even a mudroom for yanking off boots. Best of all, it was surrounded by a little clearing, so that the sun poured in on cold winter days.

After they moved in, Gary lavished attention on the garden. He planted flowering trees and roses as well as tulips. He built a concrete patio and a wooden gazebo. He even came up with a scheme to tame White Water, channeling it through the property so that it cascaded down a series of concrete terraces, then rushed through a culvert to join the much larger creek that ran in front of the houses across the street. White Water traced its source to the top of the steep-sided canyon behind the LaCombes' house, and after a big rain, a tree would occasionally tumble over high above and create a logjam. Water, filled with rocks and mud, would back up behind a jumble of branches until it broke through or spilled over, and so all that first week of February, Gary and Phyllis kept a close eye on White Water.

On Monday, they recalled, a huge storm system pummeled virtually the entire coast. In places it dumped more than 12 inches of rain. In Los Angeles, roads leading to the airport flooded, delaying flights even after the worst of the weather passed through. In San Fernando, 78-mile-per-hour winds lifted the roof off a public-housing complex. In Port Hueneme, waves swallowed the last 200 feet of a long fishing pier. In Santa Barbara, gracious palm-lined streets turned into obstacle courses as winds approaching 80 miles per hour bowed, then upended scores of trees, some twenty of which toppled onto cars.

Much farther north, in Santa Cruz County, the Pajaro River crested at its highest level ever. As leaks started appearing in levees, officials hastily ordered the evacuation of ten thousand people who lived within the broad floodplain. Closer to Rio Nido, Fife Creek spilled over its banks, submerging an RV campground in neighboring Guerneville. Driving back from Santa Rosa that night, Phyllis and Gary saw tree limbs down everywhere. "It looks like a war zone," exclaimed Phyllis.

On Wednesday, the sun briefly reappeared. On Thursday, another big storm began to roll in from the ocean. That night, Gary was worried enough to call his boss at the warehouse where he worked to announce that he wasn't coming to work Friday if the river started to flood. "But he made a big fuss, so I said, okay, I'd go in."

The next morning, the storm swept inland, bringing with it battalions of clouds the color of gunmetal and rain that rose and fell in crescendos whenever a squall line moved through. For the most part, though, it didn't seem to be raining all that hard.

Gary went to work and spent eight hours forklifting merchandise on and off the loading dock. He got home about five-thirty in the evening, shortly after Phyllis returned from her own job as a bookkeeper for River Rugs. They had spaghetti for dinner. Then Gary went out to walk the property. The rain was letting up. White Water was running. The culvert seemed clear. All was as it should be, it seemed, except that a tree was down. It would be good for firewood, he thought.

The LaCombes went to bed early. To Phyllis, it seemed like a magical night. "The house had such a warm, beautiful, loving glow," she recalled. "I remember going upstairs and thinking it's so nice to be home. It's so nice to be safe." And they were safe, both Phyllis and Gary thought, well above the reach of the river. They had shelter; they had food; they had each other. What did it matter if River Road should flood? Gary soon fell deeply asleep. Phyllis watched the movie Ghost until she, too, began to doze off. Then, around nine-thirty, they were both startled awake. Mai Lin Schultz, the sixteen-year-old daughter of their neighbor Hee-Ran Schultz, had spotted mud flowing down the LaCombes' drive and was frantically pounding on their front door. Still groggy, Gary and Phyllis pulled on their boots and went outside.

At first, Gary thought that it was just the culvert under the driveway that was plugged. While he and the neighbors worked to clear it, Phyllis walked out into the yard, up the garden steps, past the little gazebo, where she and Gary were planning to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, and looked up at the steep canyon wall. The narrow gully down which White Water had been flowing, she could see, was now completely plugged. "It's all filled in," she shouted to Gary. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

Phyllis had gotten about halfway back to the house when a low rumble announced a small landslide. It didn't seem serious, just a shallow slump of rocks and mud that petered out around the gazebo. A bit later on, a couple of firemen stopped by to check things out, concluded that little damage had been done, and then left. As portent piled upon portent, the creek in front of Heeran's house suddenly stopped running. That was the creek into which White Water emptied, and the interruption of its flow seemed odd. "I wouldn't go back in that house if I were you," warned a man who lived up the road. "Are you kidding?" asked Phyllis with a perplexed smile.

Gary knew that the plugging of White Water was a bad sign. He worried about a logjam. He worried about a sudden surge of water and mud slamming into the sliding-glass doors that opened from the living room onto the terrace. As reinforcement, he grabbed some plywood from the garage and constructed an im-promptu shield. Then, around midnight, he and Phyllis went back inside.

THE LACOMBES were sitting at their kitchen table when they heard what Gary remembers as a "rumbling, snapping, cracking, limb-breaking, tree-crashing avalanche."

Phyllis gasped, "Oh, my God"; then she heard Gary scream: "Ruuunnn!"
She headed for the front door, and heard Gary scream again. "Not that way-upstairs!"

Out the window Gary could see a tidal wave of mud and debris advancing across the patio. It looked to be at least 40 feet tall. He tried to run, but his feet seemed locked to the floor. Phyllis got partway upstairs, then turned to see the root ball of a huge Douglas fir, perhaps 100 feet tall and 15 feet across, hurtling toward the house. She stood there mesmerized. "I thought to myself, If I'm going to die, I'm going to watch it take me."

But at the last minute the tree veered off. At first, it seemed to take aim at the house across the street, where Mai Lin Schultz and her mother, Hee-Ran, stood on the front porch, watching with the horrified fascination of a pair of mice staring into the eyes of a rattlesnake. Then the tree swerved again, sliding into the house next to the LaCombes' with a loud crack.

Over the next few hours the tree slowly pushed the house off its foundation, pinned it against another Douglas fir that was still standing, and split it down the middle like a log. The contents of the house spilled into the muddy torrent that was coursing downhill: cherished photographs, an elaborately painted Hopi doll, a hand-carved sign bearing the name of the family who lived there. Pat Kelly, a volunteer fireman who lived down the street, saw the sign floating by, plucked it from the ooze, and cleaned it off. THE KUDROFFS, it read.

For Phyllis, time seemed to pass in disconnected snatches, like a dream or, rather, a nightmare. "My mind shut down," she said. "All I wanted to do was get the hell out."

In fact, she was near hysteria. "We're going to die," she told the woman who answered her call to 911. "I grabbed her by the shoulders," Gary remembered, "and I told her, 'Hon, you've got to pack.' " But Phyllis stood there staring at him. "I can't even pack for a vacation," she wailed, "and now you expect me to pack for the rest of my life?"

Gary walked into the closet, pulled out a big suitcase, and swept Phyllis's clothes, hangers and all, into it. "I never wear those," she objected, and so he dumped all the clothes on the floor. "Okay," he said. "You pack."

Faced with the overwhelming, the human mind seems to saturate; people do things that later on seem to make little sense and then wonder at them. A chaotic checklist of things to do suddenly rushed into Phyllis's head. In the urgent desire to rescue something useful, she scooped up bottles of vitamin pills. Later on, she and Gary would discover that they'd both forgotten to pack shoes.

When Gary and Phyllis left that night, slogging in their boots through a knee-deep mess of mud, their house was still on its foundation, and their three vehicles-a Bronco, a Dodge pickup truck, a sporty Honda CRX-were still parked in the driveway. But the heavy mass of mud and debris pressed inexorably downhill, and twenty minutes later, as neighbors watched, the house creaked and groaned, then suddenly lurched forward and spun around, like Dorothy's house in The Wizard of Oz. A big gash opened at the corner of the kitchen. One after another, the Bronco, the Dodge pickup, and the Honda CRX all slid into the mud.

Hee-Ran and Mai Lin Schultz stood there watching until a big tree nearly slid into the porch where they were standing. Then they followed fire chief Steve Baxman to safety, taking a path that wound along the back of the house to avoid the slurry of mocha-colored muck that, like a spilled milk shake, was streaming down the street out front. Hee-Ran would never forget how eerily beautiful everything seemed. The storm had passed, and the moon had risen. In its ghostly light, giant trees cast giant shadows, and rain-drops glistened like tiny sequins.

JIM KUDROFF, the LaCombes' next-door neighbor, learned of the trouble a few hours later. Phyllis, in fact, called him in San Francisco shortly after sunrise. Because of the storm, he, his wife, Paula, and their two young children had not driven back to Rio Nido on Friday; they had stayed overnight in the city instead.

"It looks pretty bad," Phyllis told him. "You should get here as soon as you can."

Jim was worried about the river. How high was it? Was the road still open? It was open, Phyllis said, and so Jim urgently drove from San Francisco to Rio Nido. Taking Highway 101 north, he crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, sped through Marin County, then finally reached Santa Rosa, the capital of Sonoma County's picturesque wine country.

As soon as he turned off the highway, onto River Road, he began to see the familiar, flooded vineyards, bare of leaves and mulched in a bank of fog. Less than a mile before the turnoff to Upper Canyon Three, he passed the brick ch?teau where Korbel conducts wine and champagne tastings. Had he stopped there and looked up, he would have seen a big gash in the forested hillside above Rio Nido, a kind of geological graffiti left by the landslide that had just claimed his home.

But Jim was in no mood for stopping; he just wanted to make it to Rio Nido before River Road became impassable. When he finally got there and saw what had happened, he was stunned. In his mind he tried to visualize his house as it had been. Then he tried to cut and paste that mental blueprint onto the shambles he saw before him. Somewhere in the wreckage was a child's bed that he'd built with his own hands. Gaily printed sofa cushions lay exposed to the sky.

Later on, passersby would behold the contents of the house and think of them as strangely exquisite objects, the sort of objects Peter Carl Faberg? might have nested inside a porcelain egg. But the egg that had been Jim's house had been cracked open with deadly force, and so it was that, above all else, Jim at that particular moment felt indescribably grateful. He was grateful that he and his family had decided not to drive up to Rio Nido on Friday night, that the heavy rain had persuaded them to stay over in San Francisco, that no one had been in the house when nature destroyed it. He was grateful that they all still had a place to stay.

For a while, Jim scanned through the rubble, thinking about all the little things that constitute a household's irreplaceable treasures, like the flying bat he'd carved out of redwood for his daughter, Kachina. But he could see nothing. On the way back to San Francisco, Jim called Paula on his car phone.

"It's gone," he said simply. "What's gone? What do you mean gone?" Paula asked. "I mean gone," Jim replied. "It's all gone."

WHAT CAUSED THE Rio Nido landslide was not a single fluke storm but a fluky season of storms, the worst winter-storm season California had experienced in fifteen years. The storms started in December. Around the first of the year, there was a deceptive lull. But the lull didn't last, and during January, northern California recorded twenty days of rain. Then, during the first week of February, the immense cyclonic systems rumbling across the North Pacific powered up to full bore.

This was the week of the Rio Nido landslide.

This was the week when students at Stanford University paddled across their flooded campus in kayaks and canoes, when three hundred thousand people were left without electrical power, when a sixty-two-year-old newspaper publisher lost his footing on a narrow bridge and was swept away by raging floodwaters.

This was the week when big chunks of the scenic highway that runs between Carmel and San Simeon tumbled down sheer-sided embankments, cutting off access to Big Sur until May.

This was the week when a forty-six-year-old man in Loma Mar, California, died after an enormous tree rode a landslide into the bedroom of the house where he lived.

This was also the week when the California storms produced eerie echoes in Florida, where a massive disturbance barreled out of the Gulf of Mexico and exploded like a bomb across the southern tip of the state. That storm has now been inscribed in the pages of popular memory as the Groundhog Day storm, and it is certain that under its baleful skies, no drowsy rodent ventured from its burrow, much less looked for its shadow.

The winds unleashed in the black hours of early morning over-turned three hundred airplanes parked at regional airports and whipped up swells that swamped a beamy houseboat anchored at a sheltered harbor. In the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, a crew of swordfishermen had to be rescued by coast-guard helicopters as their boat foundered in 18-foot seas. North of Key West another swordfisherman was crushed by his heaving 51-foot boat as he struggled to secure it to a wooden dock.

Meteorological bookends, the storms that hit California and Florida that first week of February bracketed opposite sides of an enormous continent. Simultaneous in time, yet separated in space, they occurred along coastlines that had different geological histories and weather patterns influenced by different oceans. Yet these storms were tightly linked. The Florida Groundhog Day storm traced its origins to the big cyclonic system that had smashed into California some three days earlier, then sped across the Southwest, nearly splintering apart as it was forced up and over the Rocky Mountains. A day or so later, however, the system regathered its strength, sucking sustenance from the warm, moist air rising off the Gulf of Mexico.

What was amazing, though, was not that the storms that hit California and Florida were linked to each other but that they were both linked to a distant upheaval that, in May 1997, radiated out from the dark blue waters of the tropical Pacific. Over an astonishingly short period of time this climatological convulsion had managed to rearrange the flow of weather across a large portion of the globe, from Canada to Chile, from Indonesia to Iowa, from Alaska to Australia. There were even hints that the 1997-98 El Niño reached clear across the Atlantic Ocean to affect Europe's weather as well.

For months on end, readers of newspapers and watchers of TV were regaled with accounts of strange and wondrous happenings. Chileans, they learned, basked on strangely balmy beaches in the middle of their winter, while, some six months later, Mexicans shivered under a chilly coverlet of fresh-fallen snow during theirs. Peruvians wondered at a great lake that appeared in the middle of the Sechura Desert, while Indonesians suffered through a scalding drought that shriveled crops and allowed wildfires to blaze out of control.

As the images of fires, floods, tornadoes, and snowstorms flashed across the world, the troubles of middle-class Americans like the LaCombes seemed to merge with those of hungry subsistence farmers on the islands of New Guinea and Borneo, flood-ravaged villagers in Kenya and Somalia, and landslide victims in impoverished areas of Ecuador and Peru. And amazing as it seemed, these global reversals of fortune all shared the same cause—El Niño, the warm side of a climate cycle that has only recently been recognized as the most important influence on monthly weather patterns apart from the seasons.

Climatologists have a term for the meteorological sleights of hand by which El Niño turns dry places wet, wet places dry, cold places warm, and warm places cold. They call them teleconnections, literally long-distance links, and by the end of the twentieth century these links had begun to seem so strong, so obvious, that it was hard to remember that people everywhere had not always known about El Niño, that only toward the end of the twentieth century had they keyed into its power to reconfigure the world.


Long before they became consciously aware of it and began to understand the physics that caused it, people around the world had marched to El Niño's syncopated beat. A surprisingly detailed record of El Niño's comings and goings, for example, has emerged from ancient Egypt, where, for thousands of years, the rhythm of life revolved around the annual ebb and flow of the Nile.

The whole system of agriculture that sustained the pharaohs and their subjects, it is well known, depended on the floods that began in the southern part of the Sudan in April, then spread north, to Cairo, cresting in September or October. At their height, the floodwaters of the Nile covered the alluvial plain to depths of 3 or more feet.

The floods were not only important as suppliers of water in this desert land but also as a source of silt that gradually built up to form a broad and fertile planting medium. So much soil was carried by the floods that the ancient Egyptians referred to the Nile as the Ar, the Black River. They also referred to the land in terms of its colors: the Red Land of the desert, the Black Land of the river. The Black Land, we now know, was a gift from the highlands of Ethiopia, and over the course of thousands of years, it accumulated to depths of 20 feet and more.

It was the rainfall in Ethiopia that was so critical to Egypt, and it was this rainfall, scientists later established, that El Niño so powerfully affected. To understand why, one needs to understand that the Nile has two main tributaries. The White Nile traces its source to a large drainage basin that empties into the blue waters of Lake Victoria. The Blue Nile originates in the Ethiopian highlands; it is fed by streams and rivers that run full during the main rainy season, which is known as kremt. Another important tributary of the Nile, the Atbara River, also traces its source to the Ethiopian highlands.

When the kremt rains are generous, the Blue Nile surges into the White Nile with boggling force; the flow at Khartoum sometimes exceeds two hundred and fifty thousand cubic feet of water per second. At flood stage, the Blue Nile is so powerful that it actually blocks the White Nile from flowing north. But when the kremt rains fail, the Blue Nile slows to a trickle. For many millennia, then, the success and failure of the Ethopian rains determined the fate of Egyptian agriculture. And the rains did sometimes fail.

Consider, for example, the famous Famine Stele that, at the end of the nineteenth century, was discovered at Sehel, one of the islands clustered around the first cataract of the Nile. The stele itself is not quite two thousand years old, but there is reason to think of it as the scrawled-in-stone equivalent of a late-edition book. That is, the stele's hieroglyphic text purports to encode a document that is 4,750 years old, and among the inscriptions is the lament of a ruler whose people have been seized by the eagle talons of hunger.

I am mourning on my high throne for the vast misfortune, because the Nile flood in my time has not come for seven years. Light is the grain; there is lack of crops and of all kinds of food. Each man has become a thief to his neighbor. They desire to hasten and cannot walk. The child cries, the youth creeps along, and the old man; their souls are bowed down, their legs are bent together and drag along the ground, and their hands rest in their bosoms....Torn open are the chests of provisions, but instead of contents, there is air. Everything is exhausted.
-National Geographic, July, 1997

The ruler was supposedly the Third Dynasty pharaoh Zoser, builder of Egypt's very first pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Zoser is also said to have built a temple on the island of Elephantine to honor the god Khnum, "the lord of barley and wheat, fruit and flowers, birds and fish and animals." It was Khnum, sitting on his throne at Elephantine, who supposedly controlled the flow of the river; he did this, it was said, by opening and closing the gates of vast subterranean caverns that held the source waters of the Nile.

To keep Khnum happy, Zoser apparently decreed that his people should offer up an annual tithe in his honor, amounting to one-tenth of their harvest, their fish catch, their game animals, and their goods of trade, and it was said that, after that, the annual floods returned, bestowing on the thirsting land their priceless blessing of water. Interpretation of the inscription was tricky. One couldn't tell whether one was reading a true account of a famine that had actually happened or, more likely, an embellished account laden with political spin designed to suit the purposes of Zoser and his successors.

Of slightly more recent vintage was the seven-year famine recorded in the biblical account of Joseph and the pharaoh's two dreams. In those dreams, which are described in Genesis, seven fat cows gave way to seven thin ones; seven plump ears of grain, to seven scrawny ones—and then, to the pharaoh's horror, the scrawny cows and ears of grain devoured the plump ones. It was Joseph, of course, who correctly interpreted the dreams and arranged for food to be stored during the seven years of plenty. Thus, when the seven years of want arrived and famine stalked the world, "there was bread in all the land of Egypt." The date of this famine would appear to have been around 1700 or so B.C.

The ancient Egyptians did not know about the importance of the rains in Ethiopia, nor did they realize that El Niño suppressed them. But beginning around five thousand years ago, they judiciously monitored water levels in the Nile, taking regular measurements with yardsticklike gauges that came to be known as Nilometers. Indeed, it is said that Joseph himself installed a Nilometer at Bedreshen on the west bank of the Nile.

The first Nilometers were just rows of slashes carved on rock or stone walls; eventually they came to be supplemented by riverside staircases and wells with marked cisterns. According to an Arab chronicler and physician named Abd al-Latif, a rise of more than 17 cubits (around 52 feet) was an occasion for joy, ensuring Imprint of a Mighty Fin 15.a harvest that would produce a two-year supply of food. Less than 16 cubits required active watering of the fields, which, even so, produced lower yields.

In the mid-1980s, using these observations as a baseline, Oregon State University oceanographer William Quinn, a pioneering investigator of El Niño's past, established a scoring system that rated the flood failures on a scale of one to five, five being the most severe. Then he reviewed more than one thousand years of Nilometer records. Since A.D. 622, he deduced, there had been twenty-two major failures of the Nile flood, and those that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were clearly associated with El Niño.

In the early Nilometer record, some of the years that stood out as particularly dire were A.D. 1096, 1144, and 1200; Quinn singled out the last as the greatest Nile flood failure in the record. That was the year when, according to the chronicler Latif, whole villages turned into ghost towns and butchers did a brisk business in human flesh. At the time, Quinn speculated that the A.D. 1200 flood failure and famine might have been associated with the same El Niño that, on the other side of the world, took out the food-production system that sustained the imperial city of Chan Chan.

LONG AGO the Spanish recorded a "legend" of a more northerly Chimu people who were once early rivals of Chan Chan. They were a powerful nation until their king incurred the gods' wrath, and as punishment it rained for thirty days and nights. Devastating flooding ceased only when the populace rose up, bound the king hand and foot, and threw him into the ocean. There followed great famine and pestilence, lasting for countless years, and then Chan Chan's armies swept across the land, conquering all.
-Fred Nials, Eric E. Deeds, Michael E. Moseley, Sheila G. Pozorski, Thomas G. Pozorski, and Robert Feldman, Bulletin of the Field Museum, 1979.

The year was 1972, the place was the Rio Moche Valley in northern Peru, not far from the colonial city of Trujillo, and participants in an archaeological project sponsored by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History were roaming over rocky terrain, spiderwebbed with dry riverbeds and gullies, when quite suddenly "it began to rain," as if "nature had lost equilibrium!" members of the expedition exclaimed in an article written for the Bulletin of the Field Museum.

For days, they continued, "erratic showers soaked, then saturated the normally parched landscape. With no vegetation to hold it back, runoff transformed dry washes and quebrada (normally dry ravine) channels into torrential streams. Flash floods cut all the northern highways, stranding not only the region we were in but the rest of the nation as well. Settlements were flooded, adobe houses collapsed, and mud choked down the life-sustaining canal systems."

Such rains would have seemed heavy virtually anywhere in the world. According to a rain gauge positioned at a nearby fishing village, some 200 millimeters, nearly 8 inches, fell in that one place in just three days. But the wonder of these rains was that they fell on Peru's coastal desert, a narrow thong of rock and sand that counts as one of the planet's most arid places. In a normal year, precipitation in these parts rarely exceeds 55 millimeters, or little more than 2 inches, and in many areas, it is less than 2 millimeters, barely a moist whisper.

By this time, of course, scientists had begun to key in to the power of El Niño, and so there was no doubt about the cause of the trouble. But the experience of being caught in the middle of such an event caused the archaeologists to wonder how often El Niño had unleashed similarly devastating rains in the past. And so they began to investigate.

The flooding that occurred in 1972, the archaeologists established, was nothing to that unleashed in 1925 when the Rio Moche rose so high that it took out the railroad bridge that linked the city of Trujillo to the capital and threatened the ceremonial center of an ancient empire. In that year, the archaeologists went on to document, spillover from the rising river reached partway up the base of the Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) and the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), massive structures built of hundreds of thousands of adobe bricks.

What struck the archaeologists as so unusual about the 1925 El Niño, however, was not so much the flooding of the Rio Moche itself, as dramatic as it was. It was rather that, for the first time in living memory, the Rio Seco to the north of the Moche had gushed with water. Once upon a time, the archaeologists knew, this mere ghost of a quebrada, as elaborately braided as a pigtail, had been an integral part of the irrigation system that had been built in the vicinity of Chan Chan, seat of the Chimor Empire.

The Chimu, as the people who built Chan Chan are called, flourished from around the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. Like their predecessors the Moche, they were able to settle and thrive in this seemingly inhospitable desert environment because of two very important natural assets. First, their proximity to the coast put them adjacent to one of the richest fisheries in the world; second, their proximity to the Andes placed them near rivers that were seasonally replenished by runoff from mountain snow and rain.

To understand this, one has only to visit the ruins of Chan Chan. Even today, from inside the winding corridors excavated by archaeologists, one can hear the distant pounding of surf; from the top of a viewing platform, one can see the green fields that modern farmers have cadged from the desert.

The irrigation system the Chimu built was extremely sophisticated; it channeled water into an intricate network of canals, which, in turn, fed into a series of walled fields. The purpose of the canals, of course, was to divert water for agriculture before it drained into the sea. Not surprisingly, as the population of Chan Chan grew, so did the demand for water. At one point, the Chimu undertook the construction of a canal more than 40 miles long that tapped into the Rio Chicama in an adjacent river valley.

This intervalley canal, it has been suggested, fell afoul of the tremendous forces that, even today, are pushing the Andes up. Since 500 B.C., the Field Museum's archaeological field team determined, the area around Chan Chan had risen by more than 20 feet. But tectonic uplift was not the only source of serious disruption. At some point, the archaeologists found, the sophisticated canal system around Chan Chan had been utterly devastated, and they unearthed a chain of circumstantial evidence that pointed to a massive flood—two to four times larger than the flood that occurred in 1925—as the wrecker's ball. The surging waters of the Rio Seco, it appeared, had overwhelmed the canal system, eroding its walls and filling it with sediment.

Conveniently, the floods deposited fine-grain layers of silt and sand that pretty well tracked the water levels. Flood deposits in the ruins of an ancient village in the vicinity, for example, indicated that water from the river had likely rushed in while houses were still in use, no doubt sweeping many to their deaths. Moreover, this did not seem to be just a local flood along the Rio Seco. There was dramatic evidence that the Moche, too, had surged over its banks. At the Huaca del Sol, the waters reached as high as 25 feet above the present level of the river, and at the Huaca de la Luna, two times higher. Indeed, the flood along the Moche probably inundated an area more than 2 miles wide, with water nearly 50 feet deep!

In the years that followed the initial investigation, the story of Chan Chan's flood became considerably more complicated. One faction of archaeologists now places this flood along the Rio Seco at the beginning of the twelfth century, around A.D. 1100, while another has fast-forwarded the date to the early fourteenth century. But more important than the dispute, perhaps, is that both sides do agree about one thing: The floods did not spell the end of the Chimor Empire.

Quite the contrary. As a solution to the socioeconomic crisis the floods generated, the rulers of Chan Chan appear to have been inspired to expand their food supply through conquest, thereby establishing dominion over a 600-mile-long strip of coast that stretched from the vicinity of present-day Lima to the Gulf of Guayaquil. It is a curious footnote that among the areas that Chan Chan's armies overwhelmed was the rich agricultural country of the Lambayeque Valley, the very place where, legend has it, a long-suffering people rebelled against their ruler after enduring thirty days and nights of nonstop rain.

For this reason, some archaeologists have speculated that the legend might be substantially true, in which case the name of the king would have been Fempellec, the last ruler of the Naymlap dynasty. Fempellec supposedly brought disaster upon his people after falling under an evil spell. At the urging of a sorceress, it was said, he removed from its place of honor a green stone idol that for centuries had protected his kingdom from harm.

Over time, Chan Chan grew into a large imperial city. Its external walls enclosed an area of nearly 8 square miles, and at its height, it may well have boasted some forty thousand residents. The lower classes are believed to have occupied houses and work-shops built of cane, while the nobility lived and worked in substantial adobe brick buildings. Chan Chan's kings were buried, along with their attendants, in the same sumptuous palaces they occupied during their lifetimes. In an article written for National Geographic, archaeologist Michael Moseley and a colleague described excavating these tombs and finding "the skeletal remains of young women stacked up like cordwood."

In 1470, when the Inca conquered Chan Chan, they were as agape at its splendors as any of the barbarians who rode into Rome. Bedazzled, they beheld earrings decorated with images of reed boats and fish, staffs topped by long-necked cormorants, ceramic pots decorated with the figures of fishermen, doorways encrusted with silver. They looted, then left, bringing back to Cuzco, their own imperial city, not just a wealth of gold and silver and elaborately woven textiles but also the artisans who made them.


Of all the glimpses into the dimly lit corridors of El Niño's past, none seem more tantalizing or more elusive than those offered by the poetry, proverbs, and stories that celebrate the Indian monsoon, especially the summer monsoon, the subcontinent's main season of rain. In the sixteenth century, for example, the poet Guru Nanak penned the following lines:

Oh my heart, rejoice! It's Sawan The season of nimbus clouds and rain

Almost a thousand years earlier, another bard had written:

The rainy season had arrived. Rivers overflowed their banks. Peacocks danced at eventide. The rain quelled the expanse of dust as a great ascetic quells the tide of passion. The chataka birds were happy. Lightning shone like a bejeweled boat of love in the pleasure pool of the sky....

It was, of course, the always haunting possibility that the rains would fail that made their arrival such an occasion for joy. For when the oppressive heat of April and May lingered unbroken into June and July, then famine, pestilence, and death stalked those who lived under pitiless skies that were armed "with a burning sword," wrote the English poet Rudyard Kipling.

The reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, the seventeenth-century ruler who built the hauntingly beautiful Taj Mahal, was marred by a horrific famine in which, according to one account, "the number of the dead exceeded all computation or estimate. The towns and their environs and the country were strewn with human skulls and bones.... Human bodies, dried in the sun, were steeped in water and devoured by those who found them."

In the Indian subcontinent, British historian David Arnold has observed, virtually every century would appear to have been marked by one or more great famines, to the extent that peasants used them as a handy ruler for marking off time. They would say that so-and-so had been born or had gotten married or had died in the year of a certain famine, or so many years before it or after it ended. Some of the worst famines, according to Arnold, were "named after vengeful deities or were seen as marking the onset of the Kali Yuga, the Hindu age of suffering, corruption, and human misery. One particularly widespread and destructive Indian famine in the fourteenth century was recalled for generations afterward as Durgadevi, after the awesome Hindu goddess of this name."

But while all centuries were marked by famines, none were better chronicled than those that struck after the British arrived in the early part of the eighteenth century. In 1770, for example, up to one-third of the people of Bengal were said to have died for want of food; between 1789 and 1792, famine is thought to have claimed one-half the population of Madras. And then, not quite a hundred years later, came the famine that would launch the scientific search for the large-scale climatological upheaval that became El Niño as we understand it today.

THE STATE OF things [grew]...immeasurably worse... no camp of three thousand rose morning after morning without leaving thirty of its number upon the ground to rise no more. In the interior the distress was dreadful. One gentleman passing down a ghaut in the Wynaad in July counted twenty-nine dead bodies on the road; a coffee planter, seeking shelter from rain in a hut, found six decomposed bodies in it. People died of starvation in the streets of Madras.... One word of tribute must be paid to the law-abiding tendencies of the people in general. In spite of their terrible distress, notwithstanding the claims of their empty bellies, there were remarkably few robberies.
-Henry Digby, honorary secretary, the India Famine Relief Fund, The Famine Campaign in Southern India 1876-1878

The seeds of the trouble chronicled by Digby were sown in 1876, when neither the summer nor the winter monsoon brought more than scant smatterings of rain. "The country is an absolute desert," a Bombay official noted in his district report for August of that year. "Not a blade of grass nor a particle of grain is to be seen anywhere. The rivers and wells are drying up, and the cattle are dying of absolute starvation. The people are looking very thin and ill, and though there have been no deaths from starvation, it is very evident that something must be done speedily to alleviate the distress."

As the shadow of approaching scarcity lengthened, merchants started hoarding supplies of grain; overnight, it seemed, the price of rice and wheat rocketed beyond what many could afford. In the district of Madras, tens of thousands had already perished by May 1877, when a caterwauling cyclone dumped more than 20 inches of rain in the course of three days. The deluge brought more misery than relief, however, since most of the badly needed moisture simply ran off uselessly into rivers and streams.

Exponentially, it seemed, the desperation of the famished hordes increased. "The ties of nature were ruthlessly severed," lamented Digby. "On any and every day mothers might be seen in the streets of Madras offering children for sale, while the foundling section of the Monegar Choultry was full of infants found by the police on the roads, deserted by their parents, some with the marks of recent birth still upon them."

During June 1877, Digby reported, hope briefly rose as some communities reported receiving "heavy 'plumps' of rain," but the coverage proved to be extremely spotty. As the summer sun bore down with unbridled force, once-verdant fields grew to resemble a wasteland, "withered and bare and desolate." Around Bombay, nature also taunted desperate villagers with welcome showers, prompting a hopeful rush to the fields. But "after the first heavy dashes of rain," Digby observed, "the skies once more became as brass, and for nearly two months no rain fell."

By the time the rains resumed, Digby estimated, some five million people may have died, at least 1.5 million in the region around Madras alone. The majority, it should be noted, did not die directly of starvation, but rather, weakened by lack of food, succumbed to diseases like malaria and cholera. And the raw numbers, appalling as they were, did not begin to reflect the staggering scale of the tragedy. In 1878 the population in the hardest-hit areas declined 25 percent from what it had been in 1871 and 32 percent from what census takers estimated it should have been. That's because, until famine inverted the demographic curve, these areas had registered an annual excess of births over deaths in the neighborhood of 1.25 percent.

The horrors of this particular famine, among the worst in India's long history, did not go unnoticed in England, where appeals for help sang out from the pages of newspapers, the desks of schoolteachers, and the pulpits of churches. Letters, along with money, began to flow to Madras, whose leaders had responded to the crisis by establishing a national famine-relief fund.

One of the letters came from Florence Nightingale, who observed, "If English people know what an Indian famine is—worse than a battlefield, worse even than a retreat; and this famine, too, is in its second year—there is not an English man, woman or child who would not give out of their abundance, or out of their economy." She went on to note that she saw the committee's appeal for funds "this morning only," and "thanking god that you have initiated this relief, I hasten to enclose what I can—25 pounds; hoping that I may be able to repeat the mite again; for all will be wanted."

In all, Nightingale and her contemporaries anted up 800,000 pounds sterling in charitable contributions.

BY THAT TIME, barometers and rain gauges were positioned in many locations around the world, so that in addition to contemporaneous eyewitness reports, scientists also had access to real meteorological data. More than a hundred years later, two climatologists, George Kiladis of the University of Colorado and Henry Diaz of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, mined that data to produce a portrait of the powerful El Niño in which the famine had been embedded. They were inspired to do so by El Niño of 1982-83, the most powerful El Niño of the twentieth century until El Niño of 1997-98 came along.

Coastal Peru, they established, was extremely wet in 1877 and 1878. By contrast, Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, was extremely dry. In fact, it received less than a third of its normal allotment of rain. Dry conditions prevailed not only in Australia and southern Africa but also in northern Brazil, where a severe famine stalked the northeast, sending tens of thousands of poor subsistence farmers on a death march to the coast. All told, that famine is thought to have claimed between five hundred thousand and a million lives. And, yes, although Kiladis and Diaz did not mention it in that particular paper, in 1877, the Nile flood likewise came in at very low ebb.

And the United States? The winter of 1877-78, Kiladis and Diaz concluded, was the second wettest San Francisco had experienced in 125 years; by contrast, 1982-83 qualified only as the third wettest. At the same time, St. Paul Island, in the Bering Sea, which normally sees quite a bit of rain, turned extremely dry in 1877-78. The temperature profiles Kiladis and Diaz dug up also fit the pattern. During the winter of 1877-78, not just the northern two-thirds of the continental United States but the entire world appears to have warmed: "1878 was the warmest year globally from 1856 to 1981," they observed.

How, one wonders, could a phenomenon that was so important, so influential, have been overlooked for so long? There were a number of reasons.

For starters, there was the temporal problem. The human psyche picks up most readily on patterns that are highly regular, that repeat every year like the seasons or that lock into place like the ice ages. El Niños, by contrast, come and go on a much more erratic schedule; they also vary in strength, so that their impacts on any one area will veer from pronounced to barely noticeable.

Spatially, too, El Niño challenges the mental capacities of humans, who only in the last few centuries have been able to understand that storms are not born just over the horizon but in the far beyond. In fact, it was precisely because El Niño was so large, so variable, and because it played across such a long fetch of space and time, that its full, monstrous measure was not taken sooner. And as if that were not challenge enough, scientists had to contend with an even greater obstacle, the fact that El Niño represented something unique, an altogether fantastical confabulation of wind and waves.

As the next chapter will show, it took nearly a century before scientists realized that failures of the Indian monsoon, weakenings of the Nile flood, and torrential downpours in Peru and in California were so often connected to the same globe-girdling up-heaval that they were among the many disasters to be anticipated when El Niño breached in the faraway waters of the tropical Pacific, a sea, wrote Herman Melville, filled with "gentle awful stirrings."

Excerpted from El Nino by J. Madeleine Nash . Copyright © 2002 by J. Madeleine Nash . All rights reserved. Posted with permission of No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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