El Nino Leads to More Problems Than Storms

ByABC News
September 12, 2000, 5:23 PM

Sept. 13 -- Weve all seen the images. Monsoons and floods and fierce winds that claim hundreds of lives and destroy thousands of homes the disastrous legacy of El Niño.

But scientists around the world are collecting evidence showing that what we see is only a small part of what we get. Like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the atmospheric disruptions brought on by the periodic warming of the waters of the central Pacific Ocean bring far more serious consequences than what we see on the surface.

Feared for decades by fishermen of Peru because of its devastating impact on fish populations along their coast, El Niño escaped close scrutiny by scientists until relatively recently. But in 1982-83 an estimated 85 percent of the sea birds in Peru were killed and horrendous storms raged along the coast of California that really caught their attention.

That was followed by several lesser El Niño events, which occur every 3.7 years, but the 1997-98 El Niño moved the phenomenon onto center stage. Scientists knew well in advance that it was coming, and that it would be really big. Their research, much of which is still being analyzed, has led to some startling conclusions.

Fostering Disease

Scientists at several institutions, including Cornell University, have uncovered compelling evidence that the number of cholera cases in Bangladesh rises dramatically almost precisely 11 months after the waters of the equatorial Pacific begin to warm thousands of miles away.

Experts have long suspected they would find some upsurge in cholera because warmer waters enhance the growth of a pathogenic microorganism, Vibrio cholerae, that carries the disease. One of the leaders in the field is Rita Colwell, professor of cell and molecular biology at the University of Maryland and director of the National Science Foundation.

But a direct connection eluded them until the researchers came across a hospital in Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most densely populated nations on the planet, that had tested all incoming patients for cholera since January of 1980. That was just the data needed by Stephen P. Ellner, a biomathematician at Cornell.