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El Scapegoat

From Havoc to Hangnails, Warm-Storm Phenomenon Took the Blame

July 12, 1998|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You don't like this story? Blame El Nino.

The ocean-warming meteorological phenomenon that wreaked havoc on Los Angeles before fading away last month has been blamed for just about everything else that turned out bad this year.

Not that this article necessarily falls into that category, mind you. Certainly not a story that mentions a flood of Italian trousers, losing an Academy Award, traffic jams on the Ventura Freeway and hangnails in the same sentence.

Each of those things has been blamed on El Nino.

Ditto for invading Argentine ants that marched by the millions through Los Angeles homes, causing housewives to call out the swat team.

Piano out of tune? It's because humidity from El Nino caused the piano wires to go slack.

Lousy skiing season? It's because El Nino produced a thick and sticky snowpack in the San Gabriel Mountains. And thin and patchy coverage on slopes farther east.

Golf game fall apart? It's because the grass on putting greens was tougher and less resilient, thanks to El Nino.

El Nino translates literally as "The Child." The whipping boy is more like it.

"El Nino will be blamed for just about everything--your hurt toe, tennis elbow and a higher grocery bill," Dan Basse, executive vice president of AgResearch Co., a Chicago research firm, predicted last September as El Nino conditions were developing over the Pacific Ocean.

He was right. Since then, newspapers, magazines and computer Web sites have bulged with fingers pointing the blame at El Nino when anything went wrong.

"It's an easy scapegoat," said Michael Glantz, senior scientist the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Glantz is a veteran El Nino researcher who this week will convene a symposium on El Nino's little sister, La Nina, in hopes of helping determine what that weather phenomenon can be blamed for.

You can't blame Glantz when he says he's happy the weather cycle is changing. He has routinely fielded weird weather questions for the past year.

"As a person who has been called by everybody under the sun, I'm glad El Nino is over," he said. "We learned a lot from it this year. One of the things we learned is we don't know all we think we know about El Nino."

One thing he's sure of, however: "Not everything being blamed on El Nino is the result of El Nino."

Take hangnails, for instance.

Computer users in a California chat group that Glantz came across were blaming El Nino for an outbreak of hangnails.

Slightly more plausible was the contention of some in Montana that El Nino was to blame for an increase in snakebites, he said.

"The reasoning is because there was a dry winter, for some reason there was a plethora of insects and the field mice followed them into urban areas and the snakes followed the field mice and came in contact with humans," Glantz explained.

Like snakes following mice, people all over the country have devised their own pathways of logic to explain how El Nino has affected them.

In South Carolina, heavy rains left unusual amounts of standing water, which produced mosquito larvae, which created clouds of hungry mosquitoes, which is creating a miserable summer for those who enjoy backyard barbecues.

Link to Disease

El Nino is blamed for outbreaks of Lyme disease on the East Coast and deadly hanta virus in the Southwest. How? Its rains produced thick grass, which led to bumper crops of rodents, which produced hordes of ticks that carry Lyme disease and hanta virus.

El Nino is blamed for causing malaria in places like Bolivia, and for a cholera scare in Ecuador and Peru. Malaria came from higher-than-normal numbers of mosquitoes spawned in standing rainwater. Cholera was spread by flooding that caused garbage dumps and sewage ponds to overflow.

El Nino is blamed for drought conditions that led to stubborn forest fires in Mexico, Australia and Indonesia. And the Indonesian fires, which burned out of control for months and caused smoke to blot out the sun in parts of Southeast Asia, have been tied by some to the Asian economic crisis.

El Nino was fingered as the culprit for coffee harvest problems in Indonesia, the rising price of palm oil in Southeast Asia and sagging corn crops in China and South Africa.

A drought brought on by El Nino cut into corn and bean crops in southern Mexico. And El Nino was blamed for a drop in catches of anchovies and sardines off Peru--which led to higher costs for cattle farmers who use anchovies and sardines as livestock feed in places as far away as Ireland.

Drought brought on by El Nino destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of Colombian corn, soybeans and sorghum and reduced lamb and cattle yields in New Zealand.

In California agricultural areas, El Nino storms flooded farms, destroying strawberries, lettuce and artichokes.

In Ventura, fishermen blamed El Nino for virtually wiping out last season's squid harvest. Warm coastal waters drove hundreds of millions of pounds of squid to colder waters farther north in the Pacific.

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