Skip to main content

What Is El Niño, Anyway?

what is el nino anyway lead
Image used with permission by copyright holder
If you’re like millions and millions of mildly quizzical Americans, you have probably found yourself wondering: “Hey, just what is El Niño, anyway?” in the recent weeks or months. The scientific and meteorological communities are abuzz with chatter about this relatively rare weather phenomenon, and their excitement has leaked into the media and then into the collective semi-conscioussness* of the nation… but what is it?

Related: Winter Weather and Your Car

Well, don’t listen to me prattle on when we can instead get the 4-1-1 from the late great Chris Farley!

OK… fine comedy notwithstanding, that video offers little in the way of explanation. Sigh… looks like I’ll have to go ahead and explain this myself after all.

Simply put, El Niño is the name given to an interrelated atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon wherein unseasonably warm water in the Pacific Ocean leads to more rainfall across North America. Less simply put, it is the warmer phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (or ENSO… thank you very much National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association!) cycle. There is a standard cycle of temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere, but sometimes they get a bit more… dramatic, shall we say.

Here’s the breakdown…

El-Nino-JPL-comparison-teaser-55659During El Niño years, the trade winds that usually push the warmer waters off the coast of South and Central America weaken, allowing those warmer waters to pool and suppressing the upwell of deeper, colder waters.

See how warm those patches of water look there back in 1997 and again during this 2015-2016 winter? Yep, that’s what happens when the lazy trade winds slack off. (For shame, lazy, shirk-a-day trade winds.) That warmer water ends up leading to greater than usual evaporation which in turn leads to increased levels of precipitation (that’s rain and snow. And sleet. And hail).

ElNino-Jet-Wintertime-PatternBecause the weaker trade winds and warmer waters draw the Jet Stream farther south than usual, during an El Niño winter, that increased precipitation falls largely on the southern United States. See that blue band of… um… “wet” there in that graphic? Yep, that’s where the extra water goes.

And of course while more water than usual is falling across North America, less water falls in other parts of the world. So while there are downpours and floods here, there are often droughts in other places such as India and Indonesia. This reduced rainfall can result in extreme food shortages and greatly increased risk of wild fires, both of which, in scientific terms, suck.

But why is it called El Niño?

Ah! Great question! I’m glad…  that I assumed you asked it, and therefore posed the question myself… on your behalf.


The weather phenomenon today universally referred to as El Niño was given its name by fishermen plying the waters of the western coast of South America. The warmer waters disrupted the health of the fisheries, lowering the annual catch and impacting the local economy. As this always tended to happen near the Christmas season, the fishermen began to refer to the occurrence as El Niño, which in English means The Child, which refers to none other than The Christ Child.

So… if El Niño rains/droughts/floods/snow ruin your crops/day/commute/life, you can go ahead and just say:

Jesus Christ


*That is not a term, nor would this be a correct use of the correct term “collective consciousness,” just FYI. 

Steven John
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
Walmart has a 75-inch 4K TV for less than $500 (seriously)
The Onn. 75-inch Frameless 4K TV on a white background.

If you love to watch sports regularly, you need a suitably large TV to truly enjoy everything that's unfolding in front of your eyes. That's why we're excited to see Walmart offering an Onn. 75-inch Frameless 4K TV for $498 for a limited time only. Usually priced at $578, you're saving $80 off the regular price making this a pretty sweet deal. If you need to know more about the TV, keep reading. If you're already sold you can simply tap the buy button below to get straight to making a purchase.

Why you should buy the Onn. 75-inch Frameless 4K TV
One of the best ways to watch live sports online is through a smart TV with a massive screen. That's easily the case with the Onn. 75-inch Frameless 4K TV. It has a truly vast 75-inch panel which means you should double-check check your living space has enough room to fully accommodate it. If you're keen to have a TV take up much of the room though, this is a seriously cheap bargain.

Read more
Your weekend watch list for September 16-17: Wrestlers, Welcome to Wrexham & more
Looking for new movies to stream and new shows to watch? We've got you covered
Welcome to Wrexham poster

With every new weekend comes new opportunities to catch up on the latest streaming options across movies, TV, and sports. There's always plenty on at home, and in the midst of the summer heat, home might be the best place to be. Here are our picks for the best new shows, movies, and sports to check out over the coming weekend:

Best new shows to watch
What to watch on Netflix

Read more
CBD 101: A doctor tells us how to use CBD for sleep, anxiety, and pain
CBD is great for a variety of use-cases
CBD Hemp oil, Doctor holding a bottle of hemp oil, Medical marijuana products including cannabis leaf, cbd and hash oil, alternative medicine

In recent years, CBD (cannabidiol, for those of you wondering what does CBD stand for) has emerged as a popular natural remedy for a range of health concerns, from sleep disturbances and anxiety to chronic pain. But how do you use CBD effectively to address these issues? 

We spoke with Dr. Chris Adlakha of Elevated Wellness to get expert insights into the world of CBD. In this article, we'll explore what CBD is used for and provide guidance on its usage. 

Read more