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Local Weather Event, Global Climate Condition: Satellite Translations of El Niño
Philosophy and History, KTH, School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE), Philosophy and History of Technology, History of Science, Technology and Environment.ORCID iD: 0000-0003-0866-0487
2016 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

El Niño denotes a periodical warm water stream in the Pacific Ocean. But who knew about this phenomenon, where and how? El Niño “the boy” emerged as a fabric of local experiences and stories of extreme weather events: tropical winter storms, floods, droughts and famines in the coastal states of South America, Indonesia and Asia. In the 1980s and 1990s El Niño acquired global recognition as an effect of the oceanic and atmospheric currents in the tropical Pacific region. As the oceans moved from a marginal to a central position in the discourse on the earth’s climate cycles, ENSO – the El Niño Southern Oscillation – became an indicator of global climate change.


This paper asks how satellite data and satellite images have mediated between El Niño as a local disruptive weather event and ENSO as global climate pattern. While El Niño “the boy” conveyed environmental experiences on the human scale, ENSO El Niño Southern Oscillation was studied and narrated through distant satellite views of earth from space. The science and technology of satellite oceanography concentrated distanced local events into new data fabrics. The paper will take the case study of the US-French orbital remote sensing satellite mission of TOPEX/Poseidon during the El Niño winter of 1997-98 to argue that the science and technology of observing and mapping the El Niño phenomenon did not prevent catastrophic events; instead science and technology removed the catastrophic from the new picture of regularity. From the data sets of remote sensing satellites, recurring local disruptions emerged as a periodic climate condition. El Niño became part of a global climate pattern with potential predictability.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
National Category
Humanities History of Technology
Research subject
History of Science, Technology and Environment
URN: urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-199428OAI: diva2:1062518
SHOT Society for the History of Technology Annual Meeting, Singapore, June 22-26
Views from a Distance: Remote Sensing Technologies and the Perception of the Earth
Swedish Research Council, 2012-1134
Available from: 2017-01-06 Created: 2017-01-06 Last updated: 2017-01-06

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