El Niño and Media Coverage in the Southwest

El Niño and Media Coverage in the Southwest

Gigi Owen, CLIMAS Research Scientist

What do wildflowers, hantavirus, downhill skiing, locusts, and floods all have in common? The answer is El Niño in the Southwest. These subjects represent a small sample of media stories written during the last 33 years that connect regional impacts to the El Niño phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and help illustrate an evolution in our understanding of the significance of El Niño to the region. 

El Niño was documented as early as the 19th century by sailors who noticed that in some years, often around Christmas, a warm ocean current off the coast of Peru would bring changes to the regional marine ecosystem. But modern media coverage didn’t begin until the 1982–83 El Niño event. This event was particularly strong, and many scientists took note, enticed by the possibility of associating regional climate patterns with ENSO, as this development held the key to future climate forecasting. 

Upon reviewing all newspaper articles that reference El Niño impacts in the Southwest, three different phases of scientific coverage emerge. During the first phase, from the early 1980s through 1996, the science of ENSO was still fairly new and most stories discussed the general global, national, and sometimes regional impacts of El Niño. The second phase began during the strong 1997–98 El Niño event. The number of articles about El Niño in the region drastically increased at this time and referenced regional impacts as they were happening or a few months later. During the third phase, 1999–2014, journalists tried to use El Niño as a tool to predict future impacts that might occur in the Southwest. 

Phase #1 – Early ENSO Science and Impacts: The first phase was characterized by a handful of articles that were general in scope and discussed the dynamics of the ENSO cycle. For the Southwest, floods and above-average precipitation usually made the news. As this phase progressed, growing scientific evidence allowed for greater attribution of regional impacts in the region to El Niño, and the media slowly started to cover the story. The first news article was written in June 1983. It discussed regional flooding patterns across the U.S. and described the large snowpack on the verge of melting in the Southwest[1].  During this first phase, ENSO became a recognized phenomenon and the general idea that El Niño brought cooler, wetter weather to the region became fairly well established. However, many of the impacts attributed to El Niño were underdeveloped (e.g., killer bees migrating from Arizona to California[2] and the appearance of bubonic plague in New Mexico[3]) This was still early on in our understanding of the predictability of El Niño itself and many news articles grappled with how to cover long-range forecasting. 

Phase #2 – Attribution of El Niño Impacts in the Southwest: The second phase began during the very strong 1997–98 El Niño event. A substantial increase in media coverage occurred then, compared to prior events, with more than 100 news articles referencing impacts in the Southwest. By this point, researchers better understood the science of El Niño and its regional impacts. This meant increased attribution of weather and climate events to the ENSO cycle in the media, starting with coverage of Hurricane Nora, which “deposited two years’ worth of rain on the small town of Yuma”[4] in fall 1997. El Niño stories that winter discussed huge storms that dumped heaps of snow on ski slopes in Taos, New Mexico[5], but also buried sheep and cattle near Roswell[6], and brought heavy rain to Arizona in February and March[7]. This above-average precipitation promoted vegetation growth across the Southwest, translating into high pollen counts[8] and brightly blooming wildflower patches in Arizona[9]. The healthy desert vegetation also brought droves of locusts to western Arizona in the spring of 1998[10]  and boosted deer mice populations, which led to several occurrences of hantavirus in humans in the Four Corners region[11]. Media attention shifted in tone as the 1997–98 El Niño event progressed. Over time, a popular sentiment developed: “Oh, just blame it all on El Niño.”[12] Stories focused on the negative impacts of El Niño, and it often became a scapegoat for everything from the San Francisco Giants not getting enough practice time during spring training[13] to increases in food prices[14].

Phase #3 – The Media Race to Predict the Next El Niño: The strong 1997–98 El Niño generated a lot of scientific and media interest in predicting the next event. The third phase of media coverage was characterized by an effort to stay ahead of the curve and be the first to prepare the region for the impacts of another El Niño. This phase characterizes a time when scientists and journalists were still learning about the different flavors of each El Niño. Some were weak (2004–05) or moderate (2002–03), some quickly fizzled out (2006–07), and some were predicted but never actually started (2014). Each of these different events influenced regional weather patterns in distinct ways and climate information providers weren’t always able to clearly communicate the nuances to the media. Many news articles talked up the potential impacts of El Niño leading up to events (e.g., “Out and about: Dreaming of a white Christmas”[15]) only to carry disappointed headlines a few months later (e.g., El Niño rain turns out to be El Floppo”[16]).

It seems that we are currently beginning a new phase of El Niño media coverage with the 2015–16 event. Scientists have an improved understanding of the range of El Niño impacts and can better attribute certain weather events and occurrences to the ENSO cycle. In addition, this information has been translated into local news sources. While some national media outlets and climatologists have portrayed the 2015-16 El Niño as Godzilla[17], not one article referencing Arizona or New Mexico has characterized it as a monster. Perhaps that’s because El Niño means a lot of positive things for the region. Despite potential hazards, the desert could use some cooler, wetter weather, especially in contrast to the multi-year droughts that have characterized much of the 21st century thus far. But possibly it’s also because on a regional level, scientists and the media are better understanding and representing what El Niño means for the Southwest.

  1. “Summer floods seen as threat to much of nation.” The Washington Post. June 3, 1983.
  2. “Environment watch.” The Age. October 25, 1993.
  3. “And now for the weather: Two years from today there will be rain.” The Times. March 6, 1996.
  4. “International news: El Niño pours could water on LA routine.” The Guardian. September 27, 1997.
  5. “El Niño smiles on ski resort.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 14, 1997.
  6. “El Niño gets the blame for weirdness.” USA Today. January 8, 1998.
  7. “It moved like a conveyor belt, hit like a train.” The Ottawa Citizen. January 15, 1998.
  8. “El Niño triggers sneezing season, pollen gets kicked up early.” USA Today. February 23, 1998.
  9. “El Niño’s good side: Wildflowers.” The New York Times. March 30, 1998.
  10. “Earthweek: Diary of a Planet.” The Toronto Star. April 25, 1998.
  11. “Lethal virus borne by mice makes return in West.” The New York Times. June 25, 1998.
  12. “Oh, just blame it all on El Niño.” Calgary Herald. July 13, 1998.
  13. “Giants expect wealth, stadium raises Magowan’s hopes.” San Jose Mercury News. February 22, 1998.
  14. “El Niño boosts produce prices.” The Toronto Star. April 22, 1998.
  15. “Out and about: Dreaming of a white Christmas.” The Santa Fe New Mexican. November 30, 2006.
  16. “El Niño rain turns out to be El Floppo.” East Valley Tribune. February 23, 2007.
  17. “Latest forecast suggests ‘Godzilla El Niño’ may be coming to California.” Los Angeles Times. December 15, 2015.