Things are really heating up in the Pacific Ocean, scientists say, and the result could be wild weather worldwide.
The abnormal warming of Pacific waters, known as "El Nio," which has been under way for about six months already, equals the century's strongest occurrence in 1982-83, according to scientists attending a United Nations-sponsored conference that concluded last week.
El Nio could affect not only weather patterns, but crops and the spread of diseases, the scientists said.
"It is the climate event of the century already," declares Jagadish Shukla, president of the Calverton, Md.-based Institute of Global Environment and Society. Temperatures of the sea surface off South America now surpass previous records kept for more than 150 years, he says.
The possible impacts are immense. They could range from excessive rainfall and storms in California and wetter weather in the southern states to severe droughts in Africa, Australia, and certain parts of South America.
El Nio could also have contributed to droughts in North Korea and central China, says Ants Leetmaa, head of the United States Climate Prediction Center.
The weather anomaly could have even been a cause of recent massive flooding in Europe, although Dr. Leetmaa says this had not yet been proved.
Crops as diverse as wheat and pepper could be affected by El Nio, particularly if drought hits growing areas. For example, the US might expect more precipitation in the Midwest, aiding such crops as winter wheat in Kansas and Oklahoma, he says.
The previous episode of El Nio in the early 1980s was estimated to have claimed 2,000 lives and caused $13 billion in losses worldwide.
The effects of El Nio are already being felt in some South American fishing industries, with waters too warm to sustain the small fish that are food for the commercially profitable large fish stocks.
The name, El Nio, taken from the Spanish name for the young Jesus, refers to the traditional Christmas-time arrival of the phenomenon's warm waters off equatorial Ecuador and Peru.
There have been eight episodes of the weather phenomenon since 1976, scientists say.
El Nio is an interaction between the atmosphere and ocean that causes a warmed sea surface and affects changes in ocean currents, altering the distribution of rainfall.
No one really knows why this El Nio episode is so massive. But Dr. Kevin Trenbergh, a climate scientist, suggests that global warming may play a role in the unusual weather occurrence.
The current episode has produced even warmer waters than in 1982, up 4 or 5 degrees over normal temperatures. "It's taken us by surprise that it's so intense," says Roger Newson, a top meteorological official.
American consumers may get at least one benefit from El Nio: Leetmaa says that heating bills could be lower this winter because of milder weather.
But Leetmaa and other scientists concede that they do not know all the ramifications of such radical weather changes, which are expected to continue into 1998.