October 20th USGCRP Seminar on "The 1997-98 El Nino Forecast: Societal Implications and Opportunities"

Tony Socci tsocci at usgcrp.gov
Wed Oct 15 11:44:38 EDT 1997

                        U.S. Global Change Research Program Seminar Series

                                       The 1997-98 El Niño Forecast:
                    What are the Societal Implications and Opportunities?

What is an El Niño?  Why is this El Niño special?  What will El Niño mean
in terms of weather  in the U.S. and the rest of the world?  What will be
happening three-, six-, and nine-months from now?  What impacts has this El
Niño had thus far, and what impacts are anticipated?  In what ways have El
Niño phenomena historically affected society and the economy?  How well are
the models doing in predicting El Niño events?  Are the forecasts reliable
enough for regional and local decision-making? Are recent El Niño trends
indicative of a human-induced global warming?

                                                      Public Invited

                          Seminar - Monday, October 20, 1997, 3:15-4:45 PM
                       Rayburn House Office Bldg., Room B369, Washington, DC
                                               Reception Following

                    Press Briefing  - Monday, October 20, 1997,1:30-2:30 PM
            Rayburn House Office Bldg., Room 2168 (Gold Room), Washington, DC


Dr. J. Michael Hall, Director, Office of Global Programs, National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Silver Spring, MD


Dr. Ants Leetmaa, Director, Climate Prediction Center, National Weather
Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Camp Springs, MD

Ms. Eileen L. Shea, Executive Director, Center for the Application of
Research on the Environment, Institute of Global Environment and Society,
Inc., Calverton, MD


                El Niño 1997/98, Natural Climate Variability and U.S. Impacts

Natural climate variability occurs on many timescales, but particularly on
interannual to decadal timescales.  Some variations seem random; others
seem well-organized.  The most well known of the coherent phenomena is the
El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  ENSO involves ocean-atmosphere
interactions centered primarily in the tropical Pacific.  When tropical
Pacific sea surface temperatures are warmer than normal this is known as El
Niño; when they are colder than normal, this is the La Niña phenomenon.
Other known modes of natural variability include the North Atlantic
Oscillation (NAO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Over the past
130 years both ENSO and NAO have exhibited interannual and decadal
variability, both in amplitude and frequency of occurrence. Both contribute
to the long-term global land-sea temperature record that is used to
calculate long-term changes in climate.  Each of these, as well as the PDO,
also contribute to the seasonal and decadal variations in U.S. temperature
and rainfall.

Fifteen years of research have led to a routine capability to predict El
Niño warm events with skill several seasons in advance.  The El Niño
forecasts are then used to forecast anomalous rainfall and temperature
(drought) variations over much of the U.S. and the globe.  While warm and
cool events have occurred for centuries, the current 1997/98 El Niño is
growing faster than previously recorded and is forecast to peak at the end
of the year, at that time being comparable in size and intensity to the
1982/83 El Niño, the largest El Niño event in recorded history.  For the
next six months much of the southwestern U.S., the central U.S., and the
Gulf Coast are forecast to have above normal rainfall. During the late
fall, winter, and spring of 1982/83, similar conditions caused many regions
of the U.S., including California, Utah, Louisiana, Missouri, and Illinois,
to experience heavy flooding.  Globally, during that same period, Southern
Africa, Australia, and Indonesian experienced droughts while coastal areas
of Peru and Ecuador experienced flooding. Some of these same impacts are
already being experienced worldwide in many of the same regions.

The current U.S. forecasts are based on both statistical techniques and
numerical forecasts--both prediction techniques yield the same broad-scale
features.  Forecasts from numerical models show the large scale features
expected to occur during El Niño but lack the detailed regional structure,
especially for precipitation.  Although there has been considerable decadal
variability in the occurrence of El Niño over the past 100 years, the fact
that there will now be two "one hundred-year" events during the past 15
years as well as one of the strongest La Niña (cool) events (1988-89) of
the century raises obvious questions about whether global warming may be
affecting the ENSO cycle.  Presently, although there are scientists that
find signs of this, more research is needed to clarify this issue.

                 The El Niño Story: Challenges and Opportunities for Society

        The past two decades are replete with evidence of the significant
economic and social costs associated with unanticipated disruptions in
weather and climate patterns.  For example, estimates of global losses
associated with the 1982-1983 El Niño event exceeded $8 billion.  Of that
figure, U.S. losses associated with storms in the Mountain and Pacific
states, flooding in the Gulf States, and Hurricane Iwa in Hawaii, were
estimated to have cost $2.5 billion.  The 1988 U.S. drought resulted in an
estimated $2-4 billion in direct losses to agricultural producers, with
total losses throughout the economy estimated at greater than $22 billion.
The 1993 Midwest floods were associated with about $15-20 billion in
damages and costs.  The 1995 floods in California and the Gulf States
resulted in estimated losses of $7 billion.  More recently, significant
damage and losses have resulted from the heavy rains associated with
tropical storms along the west coast, the Gulf of California, and parts of
southern Arizona.  Yet these figures alone do not adequately capture the
real measure of human suffering, direct losses, and missed opportunities.

During the past decade it has become increasingly clear that the coupled
ocean-atmosphere weather phenomenon known as the El Niño-Southern
Oscillation (ENSO), plays a dominant role in influencing year-to-year
changes in climatic conditions around the world.  Based upon enhanced
understanding of ENSO, scientists have refined their ability to provide
useful predictions on a scale that accommodates local and regional planning
decisions.  The capability to understand and predict El Niño phenomena also
presents government officials, industry, and local communities with an
array of opportunities, including: reducing vulnerability to
climate-related natural disasters such as floods and droughts; enhancing
economic competitiveness; supporting public- and private-sector
decision-making for climatically-sensitive regions and sectors; providing
scientific information to support U.S. international treaty negotiations;
and in assessing and maintaining national and international environmental

The forecasts are proving to be very useful.  For example, the 1997-98 El
Niño forecast for the United States indicates that Southern California and
the Gulf States will experience wetter than normal conditions during the
fall and winter of 1997-1998.  Federal and local emergency preparedness
officials are currently reviewing options available to reduce the human and
economic costs associated with potential flooding conditions.  In
California, scientists, forecasters, and emergency management officials
expect the increase in rainfall to be accompanied by an increase in the
number and severity of coastal storms, so planners are also developing
strategies to deal with threats due to coastal erosion as well as flooding.
On the other hand, sports fishing for some deep water species which prefer
warm-water conditions (e.g. tuna and marlin) could produce record income
for this important California industry.  Similarly, a shift in the movement
of tuna stocks is expected to produce significant benefits to the tuna
cannery industry in American Samoa.

Higher forecasted temperatures for most of the northern and central regions
of the U.S. provide natural gas and electric utilities with opportunities
to adapt their purchasing, shipment, and storage plans accordingly.
Commodities trading in crops such as wheat, coffee, cocoa and sugar is
already reflecting the predicted impacts of this year's El Niño.  While
this year's Atlantic hurricane season witnessed little activity, Hawaii, on
the other hand, is anticipating a more active season for tropical storms
and hurricanes (Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki both struck during years of warmer
than normal ocean temperatures--1982 and 1992, respectively).  In addition,
many Pacific island countries are preparing for El Niño-related drought


Dr. Ants Leetmaa is currently the Director of the Climate Prediction Center
of the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA). During the first half of his professional career,
Dr. Leetmaa was stationed at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological
Laboratories of NOAA in Miami, FL as a field-oriented oceanographer.  The
1982/83 El Niño phenomenon, during which he was engaged in on-site
investigations in the eastern Pacific, turned his interests toward the
development of ocean/atmosphere models for the prediction of El Niño. Dr.
Leetmaa obtained his Ph.D. in oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in 1969.

Ms. Eileen Shea assumed the Directorship of the Center for the Application
of Research on the Environment (CARE) in June, 1995.  CARE's mission is to
promote the application and use of new scientific insights and emerging
climate prediction capabilities, in addressing the practical problems of
sustainable economic development, resource management, and public health
and safety.  While on loan from NOAA to the National Academy of Sciences
from 1994 to 1995, Ms. Shea played a crucial role in the establishment of
the National Research Council's Board on Sustainable Development and in
serving to oversee the Board's responsibilities for scientific guidance and
advice to the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).

>From 1987 to 1990, Ms Shea served as  Executive Director of NOAA's Climate
and Global Change Program; and from 1990 to 1994, she served as Deputy
Director of NOAA's Office of Global Programs.  In this capacity, she
coordinated NOAA contributions to national and international scientific
programs related to global environmental issues, including the U.S. Global
Change Research Program.

Prior to her work with the U.S. Global Change Research Program, she served
for four years (1983-1987) as the Senior Analyst for oceanic and
atmospheric research programs in the NOAA Office of Budget and Finance, and
five years as a Congressional Affairs Specialist with responsibilities for
NOAA programs related to coastal zone management, ocean minerals and
energy, Law of the Sea, and the National Weather Service (1979-1983).  A
native of the Washington, DC area, Ms. Shea earned a Bachelor of Arts and
Sciences (BAAS) degree from the University of Delaware in 1975, and pursued
graduate work in environmental law and marine resource management at the
Virginia Institute of Marine Science (College of William and Mary) from

                   The Next Seminar is scheduled for Monday, November 5, 1997

Planned Topic: Evidence for A Human-Induced, Enhancement of the Hydrologic
                              Cycle: What Does It Mean and Why Be Concerned?

For more information please contact:

Anthony D. Socci, Ph.D., U.S. Global Change Research Program Office, 400
Virginia Ave. SW, Suite 750, Washington, DC 20024; Telephone: (202)
314-2235; Fax: (202) 488-8681 E-Mail: TSOCCI at USGCRP.GOV.

Additional information on the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)
and this Seminar Series is available on the USGCRP Home Page at:
http://www.usgcrp.gov. Normally these seminars are held on the second
Monday of each month.

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