Chasing El Niño: A Science Writer's Walk on the Wild Side of Climate

J. Madeleine Nash [madnash@ameritech.net], TIME Magazine Contributor and Book Author

When I first proposed doing a book on the El Niño cycle, I was entranced by the hugeness of the topic. Here, after all, was a phenomenon that extended across time and space. Plus, in order to understand it, one had to grapple with nearly every field of science there is. What a wonderful topic for a book, I thought, until hubris gave way to humility. At one point, I remember plaintively complaining to a colleague that El Niño had not a linear bone in its body. My colleague just grinned at me and asked, "And why is it, do you suppose, that I write biographies?"
In the end, El Niño became even larger than I had imagined. First it became a metaphor for rapid climate change that occurs across multiple time scales, inter-annual, decadal, even millennial. Then it morphed into a metaphor for the most pressing issue of our time, which is the anthropogenic influence on all of earth's systems, including the climate system. Grappling with El Niño forced me to think about the uncertainties involved in trying to imagine future climate change. It also forced me to think about how the press approaches, or perhaps should approach, a mega-topic in which anthropogenic influences and the natural components of the system are so inextricably interwoven.