Situating El Niño: Toward a Critical (Physical) Geography of ENSO Research Practice

George Adamson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Modes of climate variability such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) have important implications for how climate risks are understood and prepared for. This article establishes a new critical geography of ENSO research practice through examination of the production of ENSO science in three U.S. research centers, chosen for their dominance in ENSO knowledge production and their location outside of “teleconnection” regions. Scientists in these institutions revealed multiple and sometimes conflicting conceptualizations of ENSO and expressed disagreement over which components are most significant for research and wider society. Yet two factors are revealed that tend ENSO science toward the reductive: the increasing conceptualization of ENSO as a modeling problem associated with the importance of general circulation models and an institutional drive for simplicity in indexes and definitions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both have implications for disaster management and the broader geographies of risk, by reducing a multifaceted phenomenon into a set of indexes, definitions, and methodologies. The article thus argues for a new research agenda on the critical geographies of ENSO research practice, particularly focusing on the role of institutional priorities in constraining the practice and presentation of science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)877-892
JournalAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • climate science
  • critical physical geography
  • El Niño
  • ENSO
  • situated knowledge


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