This Year's Intense El Niño Could Be Linked With Flu Pandemic

In an odd research paper announced today, scientists claim that global warming does not cause intensified El Niños, or disruptive weather systems. But strong El Niños like the one brewing in the Pacific right now are linked to flu pandemics.

Texas A&M oceanographer Benjamin Giese has just completed extensive research into the 1918-19 El Niño, which computer simulations demonstrate to be as intense as ones that blew through the Pacific in the early 1980s and late 1990s. Previously, it was believed that these recent, intense El Niños, which caused hurricanes and droughts throughout the Pacific region, were caused by global warming. Giese says this clearly isn't the case, since the intense 1918 El Niño was not affected by climate change.

Weirdly, however, he draws a connection between this intense El Niño and the 1918 flu epidemic, which killed up to 100 million people across the globe. That epidemic, dubbed the "Spanish Flu," was caused by the H1N1 virus that today we call Swine Flu and fear may blow up into another pandemic that makes the 1918 experience look gentle.

It's not clear why he thinks that there's a connection between the 1918 El Niño and flu, other than pure chronology. He says the drought in India, caused by El Niño, might have contributed to the flu deaths. And there's a hint in a release about his research that it might have to do with the low temperatures in North America caused by the El Niño situation.

Honestly it sounds a lot like divination to me - if El Niño is bad, it means we'll have a pandemic! Really? But what about the fact that last time we had an El Niño, we didn't have a super-slick system for dispensing vaccines (which reminds me - get your freakin flu shot).

You might say that Giese is just suggesting a link between the two events, but not a causal connection. But if that's the case, what exactly is his point? Either the link is causal, because El Niño made the pandemic worse; or the link is not causal, in which case deaths from El Niño were unrelated to deaths from H1N1. The release about Giese's work from Texas A&M feels like a shameless effort to create sensationalistic headlines. Especially when the authors of the release include this gem:

Could the events of 1918 be a harbinger of what might occur in 2009?

Um, hi. "Harbinger" is not a scientific concept.

Giese research will be published in a forthcoming issue of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.