El Niño

February 12, 2016
Maya L. Kapoor

Hello! After three and a half years of writing Proximities, School of Geography and Development PhD student Eric Magrane has turned this wonderful blog over to me in order to focus on his teaching and research responsibilities.  I’m excited about all of the names, topics, and ideas scrawled on my editorial calendar for the semester.

In January the view from ENR2—the Institute of the Environment’s new home on 6th street—included snow-capped mountains against a blue sky. It’s an El Niño year. This past winter was cool, wet, and, well, wintry (not always the case in Tucson). As the holidays have given way to a new semester and students on bicycles, skateboards, and those hoverboard things have brought campus back to life, the moisture seems to have faded from Tucson. Eric hasn’t entirely left the premises; although he no longer is employed by the Institute of the Environment, he still contributes meaningful poetry, conversation, and research. Hopefully El Niño hasn’t left the region either.

In this post I am exploring changes occurring here at Proximities, from the human to the climatological, and leaving readers with an artistic prompt. Following are an “exit interview” with Eric Magrane,  some words on the mechanics and meanings of El Niño, and, finally, an invitation: If El Niño inspires you to produce writing or art, please share it (in whatever form makes sense—writing, images, videos, etc.) with me at mlkapoor@email.arizona.edu. I’d love to share your work here on Proximities in the future.

Eric's Exit Interview

Recently Eric Magrane and I sat down to talk about Proximities, the University of Arizona’s growing Arts and Environment Network, and the importance of connecting science with the arts.

Why did you start Proximities? What were your goals?          

The idea of Proximities came from thinking about collaborations between art and the environment or art and science and the different forms they take. Proximities was a way to think through those different forms—to both highlight a lot of the great things happening here [at the UA] with art and the environment and to hopefully help instigate things. That’s one of the main ideas behind the Arts and Environment Network as well. 

In your first post, you wrote about the difference between collaborations and proximities. Could you talk more about that?

Sometimes there are projects that begin as collaborative projects. One of the first things I wrote about in Proximities was Ground/Water, the book that Ellen [McMahon], Beth [Weinstein], and Ander [Monson] put together. And that was around the dry Rillito riverbed.

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, the book that we have out now, is around the “object” of species in the Sonoran Desert. So having that frame or object to work off is a little closer to collaboration than just getting people to get together to talk about things, to make that distinction with proximities. And there’s not a firm line between each of those. The book plays with form as well—combining the forms of field guide and literary anthology.

Proximities might be related to people who interact and talk and learn from each other, but they’re doing separate work. How those conversations or interactions affect the work is one of the exciting things. And there’s not necessarily a lot of control over that; it can happen organically.

The Arts and Environment Network brings people together to learn about what each other is doing and to create a space where perhaps collaborations and proximities will happen.

Another thing the Arts and Environment Network does is instigate new work, which is a reason I’m excited to see what happens when people produce work around El Niño. I imagine patterns and breaking of patterns.

For the past few years you’ve worked to develop connections between many different people who don’t normally work together at universities or in communities, but who are all interested in the environment—environmental researchers, but also artists, humanities scholars, creative writers, community members. Why? What’s the bigger picture?

The world itself isn’t divided into disciplines and colleges like the University. The world is much more complicated than that. Bringing different people together is really a reflection of the time that we’re in, especially in our time of climate change and planetary boundaries that we’re pushing up against. 

Within the sciences, we know that multiple scientific disciplines have to work together to think about how things work. Bringing artists and writers into the question also helps interact with and hopefully think about other ways of addressing many of the environmental issues that are happening in the world. So I think it’s extremely important.

A big part of where we’re going to go in the next one hundred years is about the different futures we can imagine. If we can’t imagine other ways forward then we’re going to repeat those patterns that have been put in place that are—to say the least—out of whack. History and social theory tells us this as well.

What has made Tucson and the UA a good home for Proximities and the networks it has highlighted?

The location of Tucson in the Sonoran Desert and the ecology here combined with the wealth of people doing exciting work make Tucson an excellent place for the Arts and Environment Network. There’s a lot of excellent work happening in Tucson. The breadth of environmental researchers we have on campus and the great artists and writers both connected with campus and the Tucson community is amazing.  Plus Tucson is a hotspot for thinking about many of the impacts of climate change in terms of drought, water issues, policy, border politics, all of those intertwining things. I think there’s a lot of momentum that’s built up through the Arts and Environment Network and I hope Proximities has played some part in that. I look forward to seeing where you take it!

El Niño: Who is This Kid, Anyway?

El Niño de Navidad, or “the child of Christmas.” As early as the 1800s, sailors gave this name to a warm current that sometimes appeared around Christmas off the coast of Peru.

While El Niño events happen every few years, the current El Niño event is big news because it is on track to be one of the strongest on record. But don’t let late January’s dry weather fool you.  With Arizona’s desert environment, even a strong El Niño has breaks in storm cycles. Climatologists at the UA still predict more (and more frequent) wet days later on this spring. UA climate researchers are predicting above average precipitation in Arizona in February, March, and possibly even April.

LiveScience explains El Niño from a global perspective:

In normal, non-El Niño conditions, trade winds blow west across the tropical Pacific, away from South America. These winds pile up warm surface water in the west Pacific, so that the sea surface is about 1 to 2 feet (0.3 m to 0.6 m) higher offshore Indonesia than across the Pacific, offshore Ecuador.

The sea surface temperature is also about 14 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) warmer in the west. Cooler ocean temperatures dominate offshore northwest South America due to an upwelling of cold water from deeper levels. This nutrient-rich cold water supports diverse marine ecosystems and major fisheries.

During an El Niño event, the trade winds weaken in the central and western Pacific. Surface water temperatures off South America warm up because there is less upwelling of the cold water from below to cool the surface. The clouds and rainstorms associated with warm ocean waters also shift toward the east. The warm waters release so much energy into the atmosphere that weather changes all over the planet.

For a regional focus, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum provides a great overview:

One result of [El Niño] is that the powerful tropical Pacific storms begin to form farther east than usual, and the jet stream over the northern Pacific Ocean is invigorated and pulled farther south. More moisture and more storms are thus carried to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. El Niño events increase the likelihood and severity of winter storms in the Sonoran Desert region. They can also increase the chance of tropical storms from the eastern Pacific. Floods have occurred more often in many Arizona rivers during El Niño events than in other years. We also typically see more winter days with more rainfall... El Niño events usually last for several seasons. Typically, during the spring, the seasonal cycle reasserts itself, and the tropical ocean cools back to normal temperatures. Sometimes the warm El Niño events give way to unusually cold sea surface temperatures, a condition called La Niña. The effects of the El Niño and La Niña on global climate are, in part, mirror images of each other, and drought is a common occurrence in the Sonoran Desert region during a La Niña event.

Here at ENR2, we have a fantastic in-house resource for all things El Niño. CLIMAS! Check out the CLIMAS El Niño page for answers to questions such as: How does El Niño affect the monsoon in the Southwest? How much can El Niño help with ongoing drought conditions in the west? How is the strength of El Niño determined? As well as monthly El Niño updates.

Artistic Prompt

Research  by Gigi Owen, assistant staff scientist at CLIMAS, inspired me to think about the symbolic and cultural meaning of El Niño. “What do wildflowers, hantavirus, downhill skiing, locusts, and floods all have in common?” Owen writes. “The answer is El Niño in the Southwest. These subjects represent a small sample of media stories written during the last 33 years that connect regional impacts to the El Niño phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and help illustrate an evolution in our understanding of the significance of El Niño to the region.” 

El Niño is not just a climatological occurrence; it’s a cultural one. How I understand El Niño, the meaning I make of this weather—whether I see it as a pattern or the disruption of one—can change depending on my values, knowledge, history, perspective.

What does El Niño mean to you? Is it a pattern? A disruption? A question? An answer? How does El Niño fit into or disrupt your understanding of the landscape you call home? What feelings or expectations blow in with this weather? Who or what is El Niño, anyway?