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Possible El Nino
What does this mean for Hawaii?

by Mark Smith, associate Life editor


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the world may be hit with another El Niño phenomenon this winter.

The NOAA defines El Niño as a disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the Tropical Pacific that has important consequences for weather and climate around the world. What does this mean for Hawai’i?

When El Niño made its last appearance in 1997-98, the islands were hit with droughts, increased risk of hurricanes, and high surf on the northern shores of all islands.

Because of the change in weather patterns associated with El Niño, winter storms have been known to cross the Pacific region just north of the Hawaiian Islands. In January and February of 1998, high surf conditions prompted the National Weather Service to issue a total of 100 surf advisories. One event in late January produced waves of 35-40 feet on the north and northwest coasts of Kauai and O‘ahu.

Unlike many placesoin the mainland, Hawai‘i’s economy is limited mainly to tourism and farming. Tourism didn’t suffer. The big surf produced by El Niño brought visitors and locals in droves to O‘ahu’s North Shore and breathed life into its businesses.

On the downside, Hawai’i’s crops were hit hard by drought. The Big Island suffered most of all, and a state of emergency was called. Residents found themselves lining up at public spigots for drinking water. Nearly 100 wild fires broke out across the island due to the extremely dry temperatures, and crops, from macadamia nuts to pineapples, experienced losses from 20 to 100 percent. Because of the losses, many residents found themselves without jobs.

Hurricanes are also a potential risk with El Niño. Weather experts say that hurricanes are more likely during this phenomenon. During the 1997 hurricane season, June through November, nine tropical storm systems developed in the central Pacific due to El Niño. The 36-year average is 4.5.

To further study and prepare for future El Niño activity, the NOAA observes conditions in the Pacific near the equator, which is where El Niño is known to originate. A system of buoys measures temperatures, currents, and winds in the equatorial band. These buoys transmit data on a daily basis and help forecasters and researchers monitor conditions.

The NOAA uses a scale of 1-10 to rate the severity of each El Niño phenomenon:, with 1 the weakest and 10 the highest. The most recent prediction for 2002-03 is rated between 5.0 to 7.5, which ranks from mild to moderate. El Niño’s last occurrence in the late ‘90s was rated slightly higher on this scale.

As meteorologist Jim Weyman and the Honolulu Advertiser recently reminded readers, it is appropriate to remember that forecasts based on historical analyses of past El Niño events are completely speculative (,



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