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Current Thinking

Benjamin Orlove

Our Affair with El Niño: How We Transformed an Enchanting Peruvian Current into a Global Climate Hazard. S. George Philander. xii + 275 pp. Princeton University Press, 2004. $26.95.

My first visit to a rural homestead in Zimbabwe took place in the late 1990s. The event entailed a drive of several hours down a dirt road, broken by potholes, through an unfamiliar landscape that held many surprises: granite domes that jutted up suddenly from the rolling red earth of the high veldt; trees whose thin branches rose to create a flat, rather than a rounded, crown; clusters of thatched huts. Our arrival at the farm, where my agronomist colleagues and I were greeted politely, brought other novelties, from the immaculately swept surface of the earthen patio to the mats on which the female kin of the farmer sat in silence as they listened to the conversation, mediated by an interpreter. I was trying not to stare at my surroundings during the long periods of sonorous flow, unintelligible to me, of Shona, the language widely spoken in the country, when suddenly our host uttered three syllables I knew well: El Niño.

How did it come about that the name of this seasonal ocean current, formerly known only to some fishermen in coastal Peru and a few geoscientists, entered the vocabulary of even a poor maize farmer in southern Africa? S. George Philander's new book, Our Affair with El Niño, details the process by which El Niño became a household term around the world. The work's subtitle—How We Transformed an Enchanting Peruvian Current into a Global Climate Hazard—suggests some of the elements of the term's transformation: Formerly believed to affect only Peru, El Niño is now understood to be global in scale. First recognized as an ocean current, it is now known to have atmospheric and climatic dimensions, which have become a central focus of concern. Once regarded as a mere curiosity, El Niño has been revealed to be a phenomenon capable of causing great destruction, creating floods, landslides and epidemics, and bringing drought to farmers in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

Philander examines this transformation closely. He presents the current scientific understanding of El Niño concisely, explaining the details of circulation in the ocean and atmosphere with lucid analogies and thoughtful examples. He describes the broad outlines of how this understanding emerged, piecemeal, along complex and tangled paths. It is as a work in the history of science that the book makes its greatest contributions.

Philander speaks at times of the gulf that separates the two cultures (the humanities and the sciences). But his account actually demonstrates that overemphasizing the cultural divide can lead to inaccurate conclusions. Indeed, the book challenges the common view that greater insight into El Niño's effects was first achieved within the closed world of scientific research communities and later spread to less technically sophisticated groups in the wider society.

Philander debunks this notion, first by demonstrating that neither science nor society is homogeneous. A diverse array of scientists have worked on various aspects of El Niño. Philander offers vivid insights into the very different cultures of meteorologists and oceanographers, which he backs up with well-chosen examples. He contrasts the orientations and concerns of the field researchers who compiled detailed instrument-based data sets of the Earth with those of the computer specialists who constructed complex simulations of environmental processes. He also shows how a great variety of social groups contributed to the synthesis of El Niño science in particular ways: the early urban crowds who were fascinated with pioneering balloon ascents; ships' stewards who discovered that they could chill bottles of wine by suspending them in the cool waters not far below the surface in many areas of the ocean; farmers in drought-prone areas who were eager for rain; military leaders who wanted to anticipate weather fluctuations in strategic zones.

Moreover, Philander reveals the porous nature of the boundary between science and society, describing the ways each influences the other. He shows that specific scientific developments are affected by social as well as scientific forces. He joins those who move beyond the shopworn distinction between “internalist” accounts of scientific progress (which center on the ability of scientists to push forward the state of knowledge about topics of interest within scientific communities) and “externalist” ones (which emphasize the social and economic pressures driving science). An internalist historian of science, seeking to explain the development of networks of weather stations, for example, might point to the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s, which allowed information to be rapidly communicated and compiled, whereas an externalist might single out the storms that severely weakened the British and French navies in their battles with the Russians during the Crimean War in the 1850s, prompting leaders in these governments to push for better ways of predicting such things. Philander is familiar with both sides of the story and integrates them thoughtfully.

Understanding of the global scale of El Niño, particularly the movement of warm water in the tropical Pacific, advanced in 1957, when researchers from many nations coordinated their efforts as part of the International Geophysical Year. An internalist account would emphasize that this year followed the well-established traditions of earlier International Polar Years; an externalist one would stress the importance of the Cold War (which led countries to compete in this scientific arena) and of local economic factors, such as the desire of commercial fishers in the Pacific to locate schools of tuna.

Philander ends his tour through the physical systems that give rise to El Niño and the social systems that give rise to El Niño science by describing ways that science and social programs can, and often do, combine to reduce human vulnerability to the hazards associated with El Niño. He closes by expressing the hope that the gains that humanity has made in this regard will allow us to face the threat of climate change, which will clearly require even more people of diverse backgrounds to work together.—Benjamin S. Orlove, Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis

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