El Niño without ‘El Niño’? Path dependency and the definition problem in El Niño Southern Oscillation research

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The El Niño phenomenon – and its associated phenomena El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and La Niña – have become probably the most well-known forms of natural climatic variability. El Niño forecasts underpin regional Climate Outlook Forums in many parts of the world. The declaration of El Niño conditions can unlock development aid money and El Niño events commonly receive widespread media coverage. Yet ‘El Niño’ has not always meant what it does today. The name was originally applied to an annually-occurring ocean current that affected northern Peru and Ecuador, so called because it arrived at Christmas (the Christ Child). The transition in meaning to a complex global phenomenon was related as much to commercial and geopolitical priorities as to the oceanic and atmospheric observations that underpin theories of El Niño dynamics. In this paper, I argue that scientific conceptualisations of El Niño are an example of path dependency. Badging ocean-atmosphere variability as ‘El Niño’ is unnecessary either for the advancement of science or effective disaster risk reduction; in fact, current definitions are confusing and can create problems in preparing for El Niño-related hazards, as occurred with the 2017 ‘coastal’ El Niño in Peru. This paper outlines the historical processes that led to the current conceptualisations of El Niño and suggests an alternative way of understanding ocean-atmosphere dynamics in the Pacific and beyond. It then considers the implications of this path-dependency on El Niño’s ontological politics; that is, who gets to define El Niño, and to what end.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2047-2070
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Issue number3
Early online date7 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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