El Niño denotes a periodical warm water stream in the Pacific Ocean. But who knew about this phenomenon, where, how, and to what avail? El Niño “the boy” emerged as a fabric of local stories of origin and experiences of extreme weather events: tropical winter storms, floods and droughts, dying fish populations, poor harvests and famines in the coastal states of South America, Indonesia and Asia. The rich cultural history on the regional scale went largely unnoticed in the Northern Hemisphere. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did El Niño acquire global recognition as a part of the oceanic and atmospheric temperature cycles in the eastern tropical Pacific region. As the oceans moved from a marginal to a central position in the discourse on the earth’s environment and biospheric cycles, ENSO – the El Niño Southern Oscillation – became a major reference in rising world ocean temperature curves and an indicator of global climate change.
This paper explores the epistemic, economic and political rationalities that constituted the transition of the El Niño phenomenon from a local explanandum to an explanans of global climate change. Satellite oceanography will be addressed as the critical technoscientific practice effecting this transition. As satellites reconnected space politics to geopolitics they became an obligatory passage point in the configuration of legitimate research questions and results of earth observation. While records of the El Niño phenomenon go back to the 18th century, the single observations from ships did not connect to synoptic pictures in immediate ways. Satellite measurements in contrast outbalanced problematic “top skin” data by breadth of areal coverage. Through satellite oceanographic data, sporadic, elusive and disruptive weather events became climatic periods of high intensity, succession and duration. The paper looks at the practice of high-resolution sea surface temperature measurements that since the 1990s solicited new views on the oceanic-atmospheric climate cycle. Both spatially and temporally, El Niño shifted from anomaly to normality. As a regular world climate engine the Southern Oscillation combined the exceptional with the periodic, inviting images both of climate catastrophe and of climate predictability.
Dealing with Climate Change: Calculus & Catastrophe in the Age of Simulation, Leuphana University Lüneburg, June 25-26