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El Niño and La Niña: What’s Up With These Two Phenomena?

By Anagha Dogiparthi

If you’ve ever taken a Spanish class in your life, you are probably familiar with the terms “El Niño” and “La Niña”. Your definitions, on the other hand, might be a little askew.

In Spanish, the two words mean “boy” and “girl” respectively. This, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the actual topic at hand: the environmental effects of El Niño and La Niña.

Courtesy of India's Farmers Revive Traditional Grains in Face of Severe Drought; El Niño process dries up all surrounding areas, causing extreme heat and droughts in a rural part of Southern India.

El Niño was originally discovered by a fisherman traveling across the coast of South America, who observed an unnatural appearance of warm water in the Pacific Ocean.

Now, you don’t usually associate “ocean” with “warm,” as you all may know from your experiences with the freezing water at beaches.

After doing further research, scientists were able to connect this unnaturally warm water with recurring climate patterns across the tropical Pacific. The climate phenomenon we now call “the girl” and “the boy,” occurs roughly every 3-7 years, and has the potential to affect global temperature.

During El Niño, or the “warm” phase, trade winds blowing from east to west weaken. This means that warm winds that would’ve typically stayed in another area of the Pacific Ocean were able to smoothly transition to the eastern area, bringing a variety of conditions to other parts of the world. For example, wetter conditions impact South America, and dryer conditions impact Southern Australia.

La Niña brings forth the opposite effect, causing trade winds to strengthen and warmer waters to be pushed further west. This results in cooler water in the Pacific Ocean and resulting temperate impacts on the seven continents. Namely, the dry spell would come to South America and the wet spells would impact Southern Australia.

To give some perspective, different statistics have been accumulated that emulsify the effects of the two oscillations: In Haiti, around 3.6 million residents need food assistance due to drought, in Eithiopia 10.2 million will require food aid this year, in South Sudan nearly 3 million are unable to get the food they need, and in Malawi up to 4 million are food insecure.

We’ve already clarified that these unusual weather occurrences cause warmer and cooler ocean temperatures, therefore affecting the climate on the seven continents. But what are the deeper effects of this, other than just temperature change?

El Niño and La Niña have the potential to impact precipitation levels on land, which can lead to extreme droughts or extreme flooding. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to affect some of the poorer countries, which can be very devastating for crops. The extreme weather changes can cause food to be lost for millions of families, as they rely heavily on what is grown in the fields.

Drylands are created due to El Niño

One particular El Niño cycle stretching across Africa caused widespread drought, leaving 6.7 million people as food-insecure for a long time. The areas, once filled with thriving crops, were reduced to grains and sand, not helping with the temperate effects.

Although scientists have already determined that these two processes are natural, and are not a result of anything human-made, experimentation is still being conducted as to how climate change could impact the frequency of the occurrences. This could mean making a few changes to protect our environment and the people living in it and making sure we reduce the number of times El Niño and La Niña occur.

The next rise of these two unexpected weather changes is presumed to be in 2022. Now that there is a more advanced technology that can help accurately predict and design solutions to issues like these, it gives more time for scientists to develop ways to prevent El Niño and La Niña from making too much of an impact.

This technology relies heavily on observations and data regarding the temperatures and conditions of the water. Since the two conditions unleash their full effects in those areas, sensors on satellites, ocean buoys, and radiosondes are able to collect information and transfer them to scientists.

It’s up to us as humans to make sure that the safety of wildlife and other human beings is guaranteed. The next time you do something that you know can negatively impact the environment (like go on a plane for a long period, or drive somewhere that’s at a bikeable distance), make sure that you think about the impacts and how it can affect the world in a global scale. Additionally, make sure to stay updated with the El Niño and La Niña cycles, and the small ways you can help their impacts lessen day by day.


Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. (n.d.). What is La Niña? | El Nino Theme Page - A comprehensive Resource. NOAA/PMEL. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from What is La Niña? | El Nino Theme Page - A comprehensive Resource

American Geosciences Institute. (n.d.). What are El Niño and La Niña? American Geosciences Institute. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from What are El Niño and La Niña?

Concern Worldwide US. (2019, September 12). What are El Niño and La Niña – and why do they matter for humanitarian work? Concern Worldwide US. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from

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