I met Nick Muecci by accident when I got to JFK Airport on my way to California to cover the record El Niño of 1997 and 1998. He recognized me from television and couldn't wait to share how El Niño affected his life. His home was in Connecticut, but he was spending time in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, planning a permanent move. However, he felt so besieged by the unrelenting El Niño-related storms that he gave up and opted instead to return to the "tranquil" Northeast. It was a strange year.
During the winter of 1998, the weather was more California-like in New England than in California itself. Sure it was the West Coast's rainy season—but two feet of rain during the first nine days of February? That was a little too much!
El Niño was named after the Christ Child by local fishermen because it usually appeared during the Christmas season and departed before Easter. El Niño years are supposed to be minor hurricane years. As the El Niño diminishes, there should be an increase in storms that reach the East Coast of the United States.
My assignment to cover the 1998 El Niño came from my news director, who suggested the series be called Mel Niño. In the early part of the winter, people referred to it as "El No-Show," because its impact in November and December seemed so minor.
The term El Niño comes from Spanish, meaning "the boy child" or "the Christ child." The name was coined by fishermen in Ecuador and Peru. They noticed a warm ocean current periodically surfacing around Christmas and El Niño seemed an appropriate name for it. El Niño has been going on for centuries. During the past 40 years, there have been 10 El Niños—meaning that on 10 occasions the water temperature reached above normal in the eastern Pacific because of an eastward drifting current of warm surface water. El Niño is no youngster.
"One of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it."
Typically, the warm surface water prevents nutrient-rich waters from rising upward. When El Niño arrives, fish are less abundant off the west coast of South America. It has always been a time for those who fish to take a break, repair equipment, and spend more time with their families. Normally El Niño will last for a few months, but sometimes the warm currents last longer, and economic ruin could come to the fishing industry. Weak events would have only a minor impact on fisheries, but major ones would be economically devastating.