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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

This Climactic Loose Cannon Is Scientists' Cash Cow

From Washington to Johannesburg, South Africa, emergency planners and scientists are huddling to confront the newest global nemesis. Stock traders have triggered a small boom in futures options as they try to second-guess the phenomenon's effect on food prices, exports and interest rates.


The phenomenon is El Ni–o, now shaping up along the equator as potentially the most destructive weather pattern in a century. For the first time, the National Weather Service successfully predicted its start and unusual scope, giving emergency planners almost six months warning of the disruptive Pacific Ocean current.


But successfully forecasting the onset of the El Ni–o is far easier than predicting its precise effect on local weather in the months to come, experts say.


In the rush to prepare, politicians and the public have embraced the most extreme vision of the coming El Ni–o winter -- a season of what may be devastating storms, record rainfall, floods and crushing surf. Climate experts, while proud of forecasting the El Ni–o so far in advance, nonetheless are apprehensive about increasingly dire predictions of its consequences worldwide.


"When we have had a blizzard, when we have had a drought, when we have had a flood, people used to blame global warming; this year you are going to hear people blame El Ni–o for everything,'' said John Christy, an atmosphere expert at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who is tracking El Ni–o's effect on global temperatures by satellite.


So far, the most far-reaching impact of El Ni–o may be on the world's political and economic climate, in what researchers suggest is as much an experiment in the politics of preparedness as an exercise in long-term weather prediction.


In Washington, congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle want to boost budgets dramatically for El Ni–o research and mitigation efforts. And in Los Angeles, where officials expect to convene an emergency "summit meeting'' on the El Ni–o phenomenon next month, research scientists find themselves part of the advertising by roofing companies trying to cash in on the predictions of unusually severe winter storms.


"We didn't bring on the El Ni–o -- Mother Nature did that -- but I think it's a wonderful coincidence,'' said one scientist -- who asked not to be identified -- among dozens in the federal government who are feeling the boon of support on Capitol Hill this year. "The timing's just been very good. We hope that will translate into additional money.''