BY STEVEN MAIER
Ken Takahashi, a research scientist at the Instituto Geofisico del Peru in Lima, visited the Knight Center in the midst of his temporary appointment with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Takahashi is a leading scientist in the study of the domestic effects of El Niño in Peru. He often plays a high-stakes role in communicating the likelihood of floods and drought that often accompany the formation of El Niño in the Pacific Ocean.
His goal is to collaborate with researchers at the Knight Center to learn how to relay confusing definitions and concepts to a skeptical public.
“I could just say ‘this is the way it is…it’s going to be like this because we’re the experts and this is how we think it’s going to be,’ but that usually doesn’t work by itself,” Takahashi said.
Takahashi is a member of the Multisectoral Commission for the National Study of El Niño, a collaboration of government scientists. Each year the commission releases likelihoods of the storms typically caused by the formation of the El Niño.
In scientific terms, El Niño is defined as a periodic warming occurring in the Pacific Ocean, which is identified by a higher water surface temperature. The people of Peru associate El Niño with heavy rains and flooding along the coast – like those they saw in March, responsible for dozens of deaths and the displacement of thousands of residents.
The problem is that there is no shared definition, Takahashi said. While those rains were caused by a weather pattern the Peruvian media dubbed a “coastal El Niño,” conditions in the rest of the Pacific Ocean did not fit the bill.
“It is El Niño, but it’s not the same El Niño people are talking about elsewhere,” Takahashi said.
While the waters along the coast warmed enough to bring the rains that the Peruvians have learned to call “El Niño,” the central Pacific Ocean was slightly colder than usual, he said. Projections from other nations monitoring the ocean’s center called for a mild El Niño, while Peruvian scientists warned the public to prepare for just the opposite.
That’s in contrast to the weather patterns Peru experienced in 2015, when projections called for significant ocean warming, Takahashi said. Peruvians prepared for the rains. The ocean warmed, but Peru remained dry.
Warming temperatures along the coast bring the rains, Takahashi said, but those same warming ocean currents in the central Pacific bring dry weather. In this case, the central ocean was warmer than the coastal waters, offsetting the effects Peruvians normally expect from a strong El Niño.
So El Niño can sometimes bring the weather opposite of what’s expected from it.
“This makes it a nightmare to communicate,” Takahashi said.
Takahashi’s hope is that research like that taking place at the Knight Center can help scientists in Peru communicate complexities. That might go one step farther in establishing trustworthiness among the public.