Erratic weather patterns this fall are beginning to cause economic shivers. In Washington State, a drought is threatening the $500 million salmon industry. The state Department of Fisheries is leading an effort to help salmon to their spawning grounds by digging channels through river beds only a trickle of their normal size.
In the Rocky Mountains, the snows are later than usual. Resort operators are cranking up snowmaking machines.
In Peru, the anchovy catch is down and the price of fish meal is up 26 percent from last year. The authorities have banned fishing along some parts of Peru's coastline.
Meteorologists say one cause of the widespread weather aberrations could be the phenomenon called ``El Nino,'' named for the Christ child since it often begins around Christmas time. The current El Nino began last October when researchers noted that water temperatures in the Pacific were changing.
Scientists believe the El Nino event comes from an atmospheric shift in the Pacific Ocean which results in an invasion of warm surface water from the western Pacific to the central and eastern Pacific. The impact in the past has been some form of unpredictable disruption in the weather.
Even though weather forecasters are a cautious group, there is a general consensus that this winter's weather will not be normal because El Nino is still taking place.
``The Pacific water temperatures are as warm as they have been'' since the change last October, says Vern Kousky, a research meteorologist at the Climate Analysis Center in Washington.
This is bad news for resort operators in the South, for example, since the tendency during El Nino years is for a colder and wetter winter than normal in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. California authorities, likewise, will not be happy since temperatures may be warmer than normal without the usual rainfall.
Unfortunately for oil-dependent New England, there are few clues as to whether it will be a cold or mild winter. The El Nino in 1982-83 brought a milder winter to the East Coast. But the El Nino pattern in 1976-77 resulted in a colder, more stormy East Coast.
``Colder weather pushed all the way to the East Coast,'' recalls Jim Wagner, a researcher at the Climate Analysis Center. If this pattern is repeated, it could also mean the Northwest would remain dry. This prospect, aside from damaging the salmon industry, has the city of Calgary worried since it is hosting the winter Olympics.
In the Pacific Northwest, officials won't know the damage to the salmon industry until the spring and summer when salmon fry begin migrating to the sea. ``If this drought continues, then we are looking for a severe impact two to three years from now,'' says Joseph Blum, director of fisheries.
To try to help the situation, Washington State is capturing adult salmon and taking them to hatcheries where they can spawn.
The state is also putting some sperm and eggs on ice and fertilizing them at state laboratories. Convicts at state honor farms are helping to open up channels that are too shallow for salmon to swim through. Some reserve water supplies are also being used to help move salmon further upstream.
The salmon industry has been buffeted by El Nino before.
In the El Nino of 1982-83, the Pacific salmon swam north to Canada, causing a lower US catch. The US later renegotiated a fishing treaty with the Canadians to ensure US fishermen could cast their nets in Canadian waters if El Nino recurred. It is still too early to tell whether the US will need to invoke the treaty.
In addition, the US Congress agreed to include El Nino as a weather event that qualified victims for federal disaster aid. No action on this front has been taken so far this year.
The weather system has also been blamed for a lot of other events, notes Michael Glantz, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
``People blamed El Nino for poisonous snake bites in Montana, mosquitoes in New Jersey, surfer injuries in California, and a spread of plague-bearing fleas in New Mexico,'' Mr. Glantz recalls. ``The farther you get from the central Pacific, the more tenuous are the links to El Nino.''
In Peru, however, there is no doubt about the impact. In the 1960s, Peru was the world's Number 1 fishing nation because of abundant schools of anchovy which followed the Humboldt current up from Antarctica. Sea birds that fed on the fish left guano, an important source of fertilizer, on islands off the coast.
This chain is important to Peru, since the anchovy supply is a crucial source of fish meal and oil. Already, Peru has had to import fish meal.
Not all the economic effects of El Nino are bad. With the water warmer, Peruvians are catching more shrimp - another protein source. Peru's fledgling rice crop could expand if El Nino brings rain this fall.
For the most part, however, it is agreed that El Nino is disruptive. Neville Nicholls, in a report for the United Nations Environmental Program, says the storm system now fits into the same category as tidal waves, typhoons, earthquakes, and severe storms ``that require close scientific monitoring.''
The concern about El Nino has spread as far as Hanoi, which has a scientist visiting in the US. The country is interested in learning how the US studies El Nino so a similar research method can be established in Vietnam.