Field Guide to: El Niño's Affairs

  • Introduction
  • Information Access
  • El Niño's Effects
  • Communication
  • Next: Broadened Efforts

Click to enlarge. Vegetation in a given location is most likely to be stressed when there is both too much water, and too little. Societies manage their water resources for the production of food, energy, manufactured goods and for domestic purposes. Often, however, societies in the developing world do not have weather forecasting or warning systems in place, and cannot anticipate or prepare for extreme events. This results in loss of valuable food resources, and often in loss of life. (Photo used in presentation of Nguyen Hoai Thanh, WRU, from

People lining up for food aid in the capitol city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, during the disastrous July 2004 Brahmaputra floods.


Weather and climate have profound impacts on society. Dramatic changes and extremes in weather patterns and climatic conditions can affect, among other things, natural resources, national security, and local economies.

Typically, wealthier nations have greater flexibility in preparing for and coping with devastating weather and climate events. However, with fewer financial resources, developing nations facing similar circumstances are more likely to find it difficult to prepare for and recover from such events. And, because these nations often lack robust physical, technological, and communications infrastructure, responding to forecasts of weather-related problems can also prove challenging.

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Click to enlarge. A collection of headlines, gathered by NCAR's CCB group, illustrating the catastrophic effects of, and interest in, forecasting El Niño weather events.

Access to Specialists

Access to home-grown specialists able to provide information about and guidance on effective responses to weather and climate events would help these nations. Michael (Mickey) Glantz, a senior scientist and head of NCAR’s Center for Capacity Building (CCB), and colleagues are working to empower developing nations to be less vulnerable to climate-, water- and weather-related events that impact quality of life, health, and livelihood.

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Click to enlarge. Why Latin America? Ivan J. Ramirez, a Center for Capacity Building team member, calls it the “ground zero” of impacts and vulnerable populations.

Spreading Societal Benefits of Forecasts

While doing research in South America during the 1970s, Mickey discovered that citizens and policy makers alike—many involved in the agricultural and fishing industries—weren't reaping the societal and economic benefits of forecasts related to air-sea interactions in the tropical Pacific. These interactions—now well-known as the phenomenon called El Niño—have been correlated to floods, droughts, fires, infectious disease outbreaks, and other impacts worldwide. But simply living in regions where El Niño’s effects have major impacts does not ensure that local populations are educated about and prepared for how such weather and climate events can impact day-to-day existence.

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Click to enlarge. NCAR senior scientist, Mickey Glantz, speaking at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru.

Click to enlarge.Participants at the meeting in Lima, Peru.

Click to enlarge. The new Spanish-language El Niño Affairs website.

Enhancing Communication of Scientific Knowledge

Although Latin America boasts highly-regarded climate scientists and meteorologists, its scientific communities report that they would benefit greatly from enhancement of communications capabilities as well as funding for training and educational programs to nurture and expand expertise. While El Niño and La Niña information and data are readily available in Spanish, Web and other means of communication are not uniformly and reliably accessible. With more efficient communications systems in place, Latin American scientists could better collaborate with researchers worldwide. Building on its Climate Affairs template, CCB created El Niño Affairs to facilitate this capability.

Elsa Galarza, an economist at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru, was invited to NCAR to work with Lino Naranjo, a Spanish meteorologist from Meteo Galicia, and Ivan Ramirez, a Columbia University research assistant to create CCB’s El Niño Affairs program. The trio tackled the problem of making existing El Niño/La Niña information more accessible to scientists, policy makers, students, teachers, and the general public. This program to develop intellectual capacity—that is, equipping individuals with the understanding, skills and access to relevant information that enables them to address climate- and weather-related issues—began with sharing critical El Niño educational tools and training with Elsa’s university colleagues, other institutions, and government agencies at a meeting in Lima. Today, available scientific data and tools have been expanded and are readily available via the El Niño Affairs Web site.

Click to enlarge. Assisting developing nations to expand their capacity to forecast and communicate severe weather events is just one of the foci of NCAR's Center for Capacity Building. A map, above, shows where many efforts are being launched or are underway.

Vietnam Water Affairs Workshop participants in discussion.

Broadening the Effort

Mickey and his team are further broadening the “Affairs” effort, developing similar programs worldwide—among them, a prototype Water Affairs effort in Vietnam, and Coastal Urban Affairs and Marginal Land Affairs in China. The team also hopes to create an All-Africa Center for Climate, Water and Weather Affairs, and expects to continue evolving this and similar programs through ongoing telementoring, travel, and contact with local governments, educators and researchers.

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