El Nino's Brighter, Gentler Side

Odd weather patterns have awakened sleeping beauties throughout Southwestern deserts

Delicately cradling a tiny plant in his cupped hand, Ron Albert watches in wonder as it spins around by itself, over and over, into a tight corkscrew.

"It's called filagree. The Spaniards brought this over from Europe on the wool of sheep," he said. "See there? It will keep turning. That's how it seeds itself. Mother Nature, I tell you, it's really something."

Standing amid fields of sunny apricot mallow, yellow brittlebrush, and purple heliotrope, something else catches Mr. Albert's eye and, like the filagree, he spins around to get a better look.

"You see that foxtail? I've never seen that out here before," this electrician-turned-tour guide says, using his walking stick to gesture. "Gee-whiz, you miss a couple of days here in the desert and you don't recognize it."

It seems El Nio has been the center of attention this year, being blamed for everything from warmer winters to wetter days. In the normally parched deserts of the Southwest, wildflowers bloom briefly in spring, but the additional rains have meant a profusion of vivid plant life.

Each day brings a different variety of wildflower, springing to life in an area of the country better known for its rattlesnakes and stately cactus. Never before, old timers say, has the desert been so alive with color and scent.

The worldwide weather phenomenon, known as El Nio, is spurred by an increase in ocean temperatures. That leads to a dramatic change in air patterns, which, in turn, leads to a change in weather.

The Phoenix area, for example, typically gets a little more than 7 inches of rain a year - compared with the 29 to 35 inches per year in the Seattle and Portland, Ore., areas. This year, the rainfall is considerably higher in the Southwest and down in the Pacific Northwest.

But El Nio expert Randy Cerveny, an associate geography professor at Arizona State University, explains that you don't need a rain gauge to tell the desert isn't itself this year.

"We are seeing vegetation we have never seen before," he says, "A lot of this has lain dormant for years, all it needed was the right moisture and sun for the stuff to sprout up."

Ironically, authorities worry, the quenching desert rain is going to make for a dangerous wildfire season.

"It's going to be a real tinder box in a couple months," Albert says. "All this foliage will be bone dry and, with a wind like this, whoosh! You won't be able to get ahead of it to fight it." A discarded match could mean disaster to an area already plagued with its share of fires.

The increase in wildflowers and other vegetation has led to other unusual situations.

Grasshoppers and other insects have invaded the Colorado River valley separating California and Arizona. In some areas their numbers are so large that authorities have closed public rest areas and other facilities for concern about people slipping on the bug-covered pavement.

"When you increase the food supply, that throws the whole food chain out of kilter and other populations explode," Cerveny says. "El Nio seems to be responsible for everything right now. It's everybody's favorite bogeyman."

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