For several months now, scientists at the national Climate Prediction Center have been watching El Niño conditions developing in the Pacific Ocean and have been issuing regular advisories about its probable impacts this winter — a circumstance that forecasters could only dream of not so long ago.

So seamlessly have the El Niño forecasts been folded into the public and private planning processes — and the public consciousness — that the average user would be surprised by the stormy history of this information or the scientific advance it represents. 

(As this image from the CPC illustrates — click on it and watch the motion — forecasters now can routinely view the movement of sea surface temperatures — critical components of El Niño — over the equatorial Pacific.)

In September 1982 a group of research meteorologists, meeting in Miami, was arguing about whether El Niño conditions were taking shape across the equatorial Pacific Ocean and what effects they might have on the coming Northern Hemisphere winter.  Tempers and voices rose.  A leading oceanographer pounded the table, insisting, "There will be no El Niño this year!" and people who argued otherwise were doing a "disservice to science."

What followed was the most powerful El Niño meteorologists had ever seen. In just a matter of weeks, flooding winter storms washed across the countryside while other areas were locked in drought.  More than 2,000 lives were lost and damage totaled $13 billion.

The scientific fiasco set in motion one of the largest international research efforts ever undertaken.

When the next big El Niño came in 1997-'98, climate scientists were ready for it with up-to-date monitoring data and better understanding. The June 1997 warning about the coming winter was greeted with skepticism even by many meteorologists at the time.  As the winter unfolded, however, it was recognized as a breakthrough in climate prediction.

In fact, the circumstances of 1982 have been reversed.  Because meteorologists understand it and can see it coming now, their long-term winter forecasts are most accurate when El Niño is on the way.