What Comes Next? The MJO Effect?

Abraham Levy
Guest Editorial
24 June 2005

What Comes Next? The MJO Effect?

In Peru, El Niño (the Pacific basinwide event, not the more localized mid-Pacific one) is a matter of national concern. It is what CNN's Mike Boettcher described precisely as a "slow-motion natural catastrophe."

Back in 1997, as early warnings were being received about a new and very strong El Niño brewing in the Pacific, the Peruvian government immediately reacted and started to conduct an all-out effort to mitigate its likely impacts. The effort compromised society like never before: stories were coming from the Peruvian Armed Forces (working on several kilometers of drainage channels to protect cities), all the way to those coming from the Catholic Church, which was conducting campaigns in order to collect everything that might be needed by poor people during the rainy season. Societal responses to the El Niño forecast were making headlines every day, everywhere.

The effort to combat El Niño was such an unusual collective society-wide experience that there was almost no coverage when government incompetence or corruption appeared: a rare behavior in Peru's media. The prevention campaign was the right response, and El Niño was hazardous. We Peruvians needed to act, and that was the story before the rains came.

And the heavy rains did come. By the end of the year, and after seven months of El Niño calling the shots in the Pacific, the local media agreed that it was the most important news of 1997. Moreover, the news outlets were selling papers as ratings soared on El Niño reports on TV. It is obvious that TV and newspapers, with images of floods, storms, and all the related impacts, were attracting the public's interest. I cannot imagine any reporter, either for local or for national media, not covering almost constantly the El Niño-related stories. As it was said, we were living in a slow-motion natural catastrophe.

So, now, any remote sign of an impending El Niño rings the alarms in press rooms. It happened again last March.

At that time, a group of local scientists announced that a "rare warm phenomenon" called a Kelvin Wave (and one of unusual proportions) was already under the surface of the tropical equatorial Pacific Ocean, and it was expected to reach the Peruvian coastline sometime during the next thirty days. Media coverage started almost at once. Immediately after its arrival, there was a media frenzy. High-temperature records were being set everywhere along the central coast (where Lima is located), and local beaches were being frequented much later than normal. Ice cream, cold beverages, and all summer-related products were getting a second wind, while the local textile industries were being left on the sidelines, losing money by being unable to sell their normal wintertime products. This was very much like the events observed during the onset of the 1997-98 El Niño event. Media were covering everything related to this -- but to "this" what?

Although temperatures were very much like those typical of an El Niño, as were other impacts as well, there was no rain. Without rain, this climate perturbation did not have El Niño "fingerprints." Then appeared a big headline in the country's most important newspaper about the "Efecto Kelvin" or the Kelvin Effect. It filled the media gap perfectly. One month later, millions of Peruvians had become very much aware of the Kelvin Effect and its related internal wave.

As I was leaving the TV station late one night, a few days after the arrival of the Kelvin Wave, a local policeman at the entrance asked me, "Hey, Mr. Levy, how it is going with the Kelvin Wave?"

I turned to him and asked, "What is a Kelvin Wave?" It didn't take a second, and he responded, "It is a submarine wave that goes all the way from Australia to Peru."

Amazing. Science is not a boring story. What is boring is a story that is not connected to the life of the person listening to it, watching it, or reading it. In a country where local authorities resist using the term "El Niño," there will always be a place for new names for climate phenomena yet to be experienced, after the arrival along the Peruvian coast of a Kelvin Wave that may or may not trigger the onset of a basinwide event.

What comes next? The MJO Effect? (Madden-Julian Oscillation)

--Abraham Levy
Lima, Peru, abrahamlevy@terra.com.pe

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