The very air swirled about by El Niño might also help point to the onset of dangerous diseases, according to New Zealander Dr. Simon Hales. Hales is working with NOAA to see if dengue fever epidemics can be forecast from data on differences in atmospheric pressure.
Perhaps most worrisome for Californians and others living near the unseasonably warm waters of the Eastern Pacific: warmer ocean temperatures can allow phyto-plankton, which carry the cholera bacteria, to grow faster and spread. Some scientists blame El Niño and cholera-bearing plankton for the 1991 cholera outbreak in Peru. The idea of ocean-spread diseases is alarming, but according to Rita Colwell, a Maryland-based cholera expert working with Graham, it would be extremely unlikely to be a threat here even if the cholera-bearing plankton was brought as far north as San Diego by warm El Niño waters.
"The numbers you'd have to swallow would be a million of the bacteria in half a teaspoon of water. You wouldn't have those numbers. And when the populations of the plankton do gather in sufficient numbers, they make the water turbid, eutrophic, muddy brown. You probably wouldn't want to swim anyway."
Colwell is excited by Graham's computer-based powers of prophecy. "It's critical that we understand ecology globally. Influenza's spread in winter is related to the environment. Diarrhea is a summer disease, [but the] campylobacteria [linked to it], transmitted by chickens, peaks in the spring months. There is a climatological and environmental component to infectious disease, and we need to quantify it, and we need to do it quickly."
El Niño, Colwell thinks, is a great opportunity. "The El Niño is like an experiment. Mother Nature has warmed up and changed the climate in a very specific way for us, so we're able to collect the data. It's time we developed a global ecological system that includes oceanography, microbiology, meteorology, space science, medicine, and public health. To bring all of these areas together in sharp focus -- it's just exquisitely exciting. A watershed moment."
Colwell thinks San Diego's biggest concerns in El Niño years are insect-borne viruses like the hantavirus. The population of deer mice, which carry it, explodes in warm, wet El Niño weather. If a dry period follows, food becomes scarce for the swollen mice population. Thousands can be driven into homes in search of food.
Graham is just as fascinated with El Niño's causes as its effects. "The ocean, being heavy and big, has a very long memory -- up to 50 years. The atmosphere has a very short memory, weeks. So the atmosphere is sort of slave to the ocean temperatures. It does what the ocean temperatures tell it to do. But then the winds blow, and the wind causes the ocean temperature patterns to change. So the whole thing goes through a dance. A coupled evolution."
Graham's own prediction model (which he developed with colleagues Tim Barnett and Mojib Latif) is called a "hybrid."
"It's got a dynamical, fairly complex ocean model [based on inputs from satellites, buoys planted across the Pacific, and analyses of fish migration and currents], but it's coupled with an atmospheric model that uses only statistics."
So Graham also considers results from other climate-prediction models. "There are six or seven primary El Niño prediction models produced around the world," says Juli Trtanj of NOAA's office of global programs. "Each has different strengths and weaknesses given different climate conditions. So Nick, apart from producing his own model, looks at all the climate models and as much climate information as we have, then produces a 'net assessment.' "
Trtanj says this single voice of prediction has been invaluable. "It's the first time that that information has ever existed. If you want to know the physical impact of El Niño in terms of rainfall and temperature, Nick's got the only comprehensive look. [Developing] the ability to forecast El Niño, period, in these last six or seven years is a phenomenal achievement for the climate-science community. They're very excited."
The last great element you have to remember, says Graham, is the "anthroprogenic" factor. Stuff caused by man. Pollution. Global warming. Carbon dioxide gases. But his hybrid model can't cope with that, and with only a million-dollar annual budget to run his show, he probably won't be getting any new toys soon, despite predictions that El Niños will become more frequent.
Nonetheless, Graham, who's been working at Scripps since 1987, is glad to be at the center as climatology takes on a pivotal role. "The ideal person to study climate in the future will have knowledge in public health, agriculture, water resources, fisheries -- that kind of knowledge will be key to being able to use climate predictions," he says. "In the '90s this job is all about taking the science out of the laboratory and applying it to the real world."
Graham won't know till around June how successful he has been in his role as an updated Farmer's Almanac. But one thing he's certain of.
"This El Niño has just peaked," he says.
That's good enough for Juli Trtanj, "If Nick says it has peaked," she says, "it has peaked."