American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update and Hearing Summary on Preparing for El Niņo (11-7-97)

The current El Niņo phenomenon is considered the most intense since the 1982-1983 event that produced devastating droughts and floods resulting in $1.5 billion in damage in the U.S. and $8 billion worldwide. Recent predictions indicate that southern California could receive 200-300 percent of normal rainfall. Both the House Science Committee and House Commerce Committee have held hearings not only on scientific predictions but also how federal agencies are preparing communities around the nation.

House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
September 11, 1997

Representatives Present
Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA)
Ranking Member Tim Roemer (D-IN)
Rep. George E. Brown (D-CA)
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (D-CA)
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (R-TX)
Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-TX)
Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-OR)

Opening Remarks
The hearing began with Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) stressing the importance of not only understanding El Niņo but being prepared for it. The devastating effects of the 1982-1983 El Niņo resulted in $8 billion worth of damage worldwide. Chairman Calvert announced that he had spoken with Rep. Harold Rogers, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary that morning and they agreed to work together in conference to ensure funding for NOAA's TOGA program which, officially ended in 1994.

Ranking Member Tim Roemer (D-IN) said it was time to "capitalize on the investment" in TOGA and put the knowledge and understanding of El Niņo to good use. He went on to say that with the predictive capabilities now available, the public can prepare for El Niņo and offset some of the damages that can result.

Panel I
Dr. J. Michael Hall, Director, Office of Global Programs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington, DC
Dr. Tim Barnett, Research Marine Physicist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA
Dr. Andrew R. Solow, Director, Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Woods Hole, MA

Dr. J. Michael Hall began by saying that the massive research effort to understand El Niņo began some 15 years ago and the result is that scientists can now predict the stages of El Niņo several seasons in advance. Also, several of the newest climate models can outline the global atmospheric response to an El Niņo event. There are two caveats according to Hall. First, El Niņo is only part of the story behind the weather patterns over North American and secondly, the question of how to use El Niņo predictions is "still up in the air." Long-term observations must continue along with expanded research into the implications of El Niņo on the major precipitation regimes of the globe, along with the continued improvement of climate models. He concluded by saying that the last 15 years were "scientifically rewarding," and he hoped that the next 15 years would be equally as rewarding.

Dr. Tim Barnett proudly acknowledged that the current El Niņo was predicted a year in advance due to the extensive research efforts over the last decade. He said that current predictions indicate that there is a 70 percent probability of a wetter winter in the Southwest and stressed the need for preparation. Barnett reported that the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been working with Los Angeles and Long Beach on risk assessments and has been helping those communities prepare for what scientists predict will be the most severe event to date with some areas of southern California receiving 200-300 percent of normal rainfall. He urged the committee members to support funding for NOAA's TOGA observing system, the TOA array. (The current bill does not provide funding for the TOA array.) Barnett ended by stressing the need for a national program to learn to apply the prediction capabilities and mitigation technology in order to reduce the costs of natural disasters.

Dr. Andrew R. Solow testified about the economic value of El Niņo prediction. He said that the use of ENSO prediction in agriculture is analogous to improved agricultural technology. A recent study estimated the value of ENSO prediction to producers and consumers of U.S. agriculture products to be around $300-400 million per year with a ten year estimate reaching $3 billion. Another study estimated the annual value of ENSO prediction to the Pacific salmon fishery to be around $25 million. Solow called the return "very high" but he stressed that even with perfect foresight, not all losses can be avoided.

None of the panel members were willing to make specific predictions for the upcoming winter in California when probed by Chairman Calvert (R-CA). Dr. Barnett said that there is a 70 percent probability of a wetter winter in the Southwest, adding that the only analog in the historical record scientists have to go on is the 1982-1983 event which he called "bad" and suggested California "prepare for the worst." Calvert then asked if there was any concern for overreaction, saying that the media is being very dramatic about the upcoming events. Dr. Barnett said that much is lost in translation between the press and scientists and that he is concerned about overreaction, but he added that "for every swing to the left, there is a swing to the right."

Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN) asked the panel to comment on the kinds of consequences the Midwest could face, especially in the agriculture industry. Dr. Hall said, it is very difficult to predict conditions in the Midwest because El Niņo is only one of many conditions that dictate the weather patterns in the area, one example being the precipitation fields over North America. Dr. Solow added that the ENSO signal over the Midwest is not as clear but that the effects appear to be scaled down versions of what happens in the Southwest. Roemer also asked for a report on where the U.S. stands in El Niņo research as compared to other nations. Dr. Barnett said that while the U.S. has always been the leader in technological research, European countries are close behind and Japan is pushing hard and fast to take the lead, especially in the economics of El Niņo.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) asked for a little more background on El Niņo, especially with respect to the ultimate cause. According to Dr. Barnett, there is no agreement on what triggers El Niņo. There are many theories but the research community is far from consensus. Dr. Hall added that there is still much that scientists do not know about global climate and how El Niņo affects other areas of the globe.

In response to questioning by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) about funding for El Niņo research, Dr. Hall told the committee that if funding was reduced, NOAA would have to look closely at its programs and some of the current research would have to be "scrubbed down." NOAA would have to decide whether to continue basic research or shift to operational capabilities. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) attempted to turn the conversation to global warming by asking about the climate models and whether El Niņo was included in the models. According to Dr. Barnett, only the recent models have "credible" El Niņos in them and there is no evidence that the current El Niņo event is larger in magnitude due to global warming.

Mr. Solow reported that there are some regional benefits of El Niņo, explaining that during an El Niņo event there are fewer tropical storms in the Atlantic, sport fishing is up and agriculture production is higher in the Southeastern U.S. The key is to be prepared for both the good and bad results of El Niņo.

Panel II
Mr. Michael Armstrong, Associate Director, Office of Mitigation, Federal Emergency Management Administration, Washington, DC
Dr. I. Miley Gonzalez, Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC
Mr. Douglas Wheeler, Secretary, California State Resources Agency, Sacramento, California

Mr. Michael Armstrong stated that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has been working closely with NOAA and the Federal Insurance Administration to promote the sale of flood insurance. Armstrong stressed the importance of mitigation and preparedness, calling them the "cornerstones of emergency management." He also testified that the most important step a community could take would be to develop a state hazard mitigation plan. Education has also been a top priority and according to Armstrong, FEMA is increasing its education campaign by using radio and the Internet.

Dr. I. Miley Gonzalez testified that agriculture is a "high-risk enterprise" and that accurate ENSO and El Niņo forecasts can help farmers benefit from El Niņo if they are prepared. He went on to say that the Department of Agriculture believes that by analyzing El Niņo consequences, benefits can be maximized and costs minimized. Gonzalez cited a NOAA study that reported an annual values of better ENSO predictions to be between $240 and $323 million per year. He stressed the importance of making information available to farmers so they can prepare for ENSO events.

Mr. Douglas Wheeler indicated that public interest in El Niņo in California is rapidly increasing. More than 300 people attended a public meeting held in August to discuss the issue. In January, California Governor Pete Wilson established the Flood Emergency Action Team (FEAT) to coordinate the emergency response and recommend future protective action. Wheeler said that all areas of California are expected to face wetter winters but that southern California will experience the most severe impacts. He concluded that he is confident that the people of California will continue to demonstrate their resilience and that they are "preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best."

Rep. Roemer (D-IN) asked the panel if Congress should anticipate another federal disaster supplemental. Mr. Armstrong said the likelihood was great and that during El Niņo events, Congress should always be prepared for a supplemental. He added that FEMA is working hard to encourage mitigation, education and flood insurance. Armstrong went on to say that Congress should concentrate on "pre-disaster mitigation." He acknowledged the many problems associated with this, especially local landuse issues, but said that Congress should encourage states to have their own mitigation and contingency funds.

Science Committee Ranking Member George Brown (D-CA) turned the discussion to insurance saying that it would be helpful but is problematic since insurers are not concerned with mitigation. Brown continued by saying Congress has not had much success with insurance bills and that perhaps the time was right for FEMA and other agencies to move ahead in this area. Mr. Armstrong agreed that there is resistance from the public in areas other than fire insurance but he was not sure the time was right, saying that the insurance companies need to get on board. Brown concluded his questioning by saying that there needs to be a national effort to reach the point where a homeowner can't get a mortgage without flood or other type of disaster insurance, as is the case with fire insurance.

House Commerce Committee
Subcommittee on Energy and Power
October 31, 1997

The following information is provided by the U.S. Geological Survey

"El Nino is a reminder of the importance of keeping our science guard up against real-time hazards. As earth and biological scientists, we are concerned that El Nino may increase the number and intensity of storms, triggering floods, landslides, coastal erosion, and damage to fragile ecosystems. These changes may occur as early as October in an El Nino year, but typically are strongest in winter and early spring," said USGS Acting Director Mark Schaefer during testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water and Power on October 31, 1997.

"We can't forecast exactly what El Nino will do, but I've asked USGS scientists to be ready. As just part of our front line, the USGS is working to ensure that stream gauges in the West and across the country will be fully operational during extreme conditions should they develop," Schaefer said.

"We now monitor streams for flooding at nearly 7,000 stations across the country," said Dr. Robert Hirsch, USGS Chief Hydrologist. "Half of our stations are equipped to transmit information in real time to local, state, and national emergency management and warning agencies such as the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. Real-time data are also available to the public via the World Wide Web. Our purpose is to provide data so that the public has the earliest possible warning of an impending flood.

"As vital as the automated equipment is, we have learned from past floods that our technicians in the field remain the critical link to ensure that the best possible information is available for making decisions that will affect lives and property," Hirsch said.

Efforts to monitor and reduce El Nino's impact include:

In addition, special response teams are on call 24 hours a day to ensure that topographic and special maps are in the hands of State and Federal emergency coordinators within hours after a flood or landslide.

El Niņo (Spanish for "the Christ Child") was a term originally used by fishermen along the coast of Peru and Ecuador to describe a warm ocean current that appeared around Christmas time. El Niņo is part of a complex relationship between the atmosphere and ocean called the El Niņo-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The oscillation refers to a change or oscillation in atmospheric pressure between Tahiti and Australia. When the air pressure is high in Tahiti, it is low in Australia and vice versa. The pressure difference is what moves trade winds that in turn drive the ocean currents which produce El Niņo.

Under normal conditions, the trade winds move across the Pacific Ocean pushing surface water warmed by the tropical sun to the west towards Indonesia and Australia. This results in a pooling or piling up of warm ocean water in Indonesia and a sea level drop along the eastern Pacific. Cooler water then rises along the eastern Pacific, filling the gap left by the warm water. Since rainfall is associated with warm, humid air, the Pacific's rain area moves west.

During an El Niņo period, the trade winds are calmer (reasons yet unknown) over the central and western Pacific causing warm water to stay in the eastern Pacific. The Pacific's rain area is now centered over the eastern Pacific and the resultant rising warm air changes the global atmospheric circulation which in turn changes global weather patterns. An El Niņo occurs every three to seven years with the average being every four years and is generally most evident during the winter months. El Niņo conditions include mild winters over western Canada and the northern United States, abnormally wet weather along the eastern Pacific coast and the southern U.S. from Texas to Florida, and drier conditions in the mid-Atlantic. An El Niņo of large magnitude and duration will have the most dramatic affect on global climate. Droughts in southern Africa, India, Australia, and Central American were attributed to the 1982-1983 El Niņo as was flooding in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and the U.S. and the hurricanes that hit Tahiti and Hawaii.

El Niņo is not without some benefits. During El Niņo conditions, hurricanes in the Atlantic are reduced both in number and severity and a warmer winter in the northern United States results in lower heating bills. California sports fishermen also reap the benefits as abnormally warm waters bring exotic fish (barracuda and yellowtail) to the area.

For the last fifteen years, there has been a global movement to study and learn about El Niņo with a large part of the research taking place at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Tropical Oceans and Global Atmosphere (TOGA) research program and the TOA array, a network of buoys maintained by NOAA that measure ocean temperature, currents and winds. Great strides have been made in predictive tools and the current El Niņo was predicted a year in advance. While the research has in no way diminished, the focus now is turning to preparation and readiness for dealing with the bad and good results of El Niņo. For more information about El Niņo and links to other websites, see the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System El Niņo site.

Sources: California Environmental Resources Evaluation System El Niņo website, Washington Post

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Contributed by Catherine Runden, AGI Government Affairs Intern
Last updated November 7, 1997

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