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Apocalypse now?

The pleasures and peligros of El Niño's kid sister.

By Brian Levinson and Darby Saxbe

Winter can kill you. Just ask the Donner Party. Or ask Francis Bacon. Legend has it that the 17th-century philosopher, critic, and man of letters died while stuffing snow into a turkey. It seems that one winter, while watching a group of youths frolic in the snow, Francis decided that frost would make a good preservative for fresh meat. He procured a turkey, and, sans gloves, jammed it with snow. Soon after, he caught pneumonia and died. Or ask William Henry Harrison—in 1841, he attended his inauguration without a hat, delivered a two-hour address in freezing March weather, and expired 30 days later.

So when we learned that El Niño's tricky kid sister, La Niña, was stirring things up in the equatorial Pacific, we got worried. La Niña, it turns out, is a phenomenon that follows many, but not all, El Niño years. She's the opposite of El Niño (which is, oddly enough, often called "El Viejo" or "Anti-El Niño"), an intense cooling of the waters of the Central Pacific and an extension of a mid-Pacific climactic area called (no joke) the "Cold Tongue." In 1988, she was linked (inconclusively, but they're pretty sure it was her) to floods in Bangladesh and droughts throughout the midwesten United States. She's reared her ugly head seven times since 1943, and, according to the National Center for Environmental Prediction's Climate Prediction Center, she's headed our way again for the Winter of '99. Over the summer, The Boston Globe and the The Los Angeles Times ran huge Sunday-edition spreads on La Niña. The first international conference on La Niña was held from Wed., July 15 to Fri., July 17 in Boulder, Colo. Trailblazer ads and Killington commercials promised "The Coldest Winter Since '78." The situation appeared grim—it looked as if last year's warm winter would be followed by a cold, and possibly deadly, one.

Remembrance of winters past

New Haven has experienced its share of life-threatening winters. Old-timers and middle-aged-timers still whisper about the dark days of the Carter administration, when the great Blizzard of '78 hit the area. "My office was on the fourth floor of a building on Chapel Street near the Hotel Duncan," Tom, the card-swipe guy in the Davenport dining hall, recalled. "Right before the blizzard hit, I stocked the office up with coffee and food, and me and some of the staff lived out of the office for a day and a half, two days—it was impossible to get the front door open."

Patrice Nelson, operations manager at the Yale Development Office, recounts, "I worked for a heavy equipment company at the time. The day after the blizzard, they sent out the heavy equipment—plows, backhoes, bulldozers—to pick the employees up at their houses." Yale seniors will tell you about the winter of '96, when the usual New Haven slush became ice. "It was cold," Kamran Javadizedeh, PC '99, recalls. Snowball fights occurred daily, with tightly packed, surprisingly painful projectiles lobbed incessantly at freshmen, buildings, and DKE pledges. But it wasn't just about violence. "We'd steal dining hall trays and carry them down to the Div School," Al St. Germain, BK '99, remembers. "And then we'd wreck them sliding down the giant hill they've got there."

Don't pilfer any trays just yet, however. According to the National Weather Service, La Niña's effects are felt mainly in the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast, causing cold, wet conditions from Washington State to North Dakota and cool, dry ones from New Mexico to the Florida panhandle. Conditions in the Northeast are, as the service somewhat ominously reported, "unsettled." And, as it turned out, the Trailblazer ads were clipped directly from the Weekly World News. But we weren't convinced. So we called Geoff Fox, meteorologist and forecaster for Channel 8 News.

A passionate poet with much science to drop

The startlingly articulate Fox scoffed at our naifish questions. When asked about the possibility of coming blizzards, he snickered and replied, "We can predict that anyone who would venture a longtime guess would be wrong. Unless you're buying heating oil for a living, we don't live in climate—we live in weather." When we intimated that everyone—including the yet-to-be-discredited Trailblazer—has been suggesting that the upcoming winter will be particularly harsh, Fox got a little testy: "Who would say that? Don't confuse advertising hyperbole with scientific fact." This meteorologist spoke eloquently about the chaotic nature of the weather. He was a passionate poet with much science to drop. "Weather is a changeable thing," he waxed. "There are daily high and low temperatures. If you drew a graph of weather patterns, it would be full of fluctuation; a large part of it would be mathematical noise. Frankly, weather is a bit wacko." We asked if that explained the attraction of weather, and he said, "I love the math." He concluded with a cautionary word of wisdom: "Over the past 10 years, the Weather Service has documented an incredible increase in tornadoes—but they're mostly at the lower end. So we have to ask: are we really seeing more tornadoes, or are there just more people with camcorders and news stations that have sensitized people to tornadoes?"

Our dirty winter minds

Camcorders, sensitized, Fox: we started thinking about pornography. The Connecticut Weather Service, tantalizingly enough, has a 1-900 number. We called it for a second opinion on Fox's foxy talk, but heard only high-pitched screeching on the other end. Not to be dissuaded, we trooped out to Nu Haven Book and Video, like so many intrepid Herald reporters before us, to see if New Haven residents have been stocking up on extra "hot" videos to get them through the upcoming ice bonanza. Turns out, they have. The guy behind the counter told us that gonzo video was the latest trend in pornography: "There's no plot. It's like there was an orgy at somebody's house, and someone just walked around with a camera filming it." We decided that gonzo video seemed a fitting trope, or, shall we say, topos, for the ever-mutable nature of that wily demon, weather.

The inconstancy of weather is nothing compared to the violent swings of emotion within the human soul. Like a mayonnaise jar full of lithium, winter weather can seriously screw with your feelings. During the winter months, some people who live in cold climates come down with a nasty case of Seasonal Affective Disorder: many have experienced the phenomenon of "cabin fever," a lethargy that ensues as the days grow short with precious few hours of sunlight. Bright artificial light provides the most common cure. The fourth edition of Gleitman's Psychology speculates that the effect might connect to the sleep-wake cycle and the secretion by the pineal gland of the chemical melatonin. Wow.

Real-world applications

We wanted to investigate whether other members of the animal kingdom could fall prey to winter weather wackiness too, so we called the Bronx Zoo. The ambiguously gendered curator of mammals, Pat Thomas, possessor of either the highest voice known to man or the lowest voice known to woman, told us that the habits of mammals change with the weather. "Our giraffes and elephants definitely don't go outside when it's chilly," he/she said. We asked about the psychological effects of weather change on animals. "Most animals, like humans, are pretty much creatures of habit," Thomas answered. "With the onset of fall you see a decrease in the number of insects crawling—but this past weekend, it was warm, and there were insects and birds crawling like crazy."

Thomas allayed our fears about the possibly devastating effect of the coming winter on the zoo's well-being. "The amount of snowfall is far more of a problem for our keepers than it is for our animals. What is a concern to us is ice, especially with ungulates, or hooved mammals—ice and hooves don't mix well, and these animals lack good traction." Look sharp, centaurs! Luckily, the Zoo has "heated barns that [the animals] can go into if they choose," Thomas said. "They are heavily bedded and actually quite toasty."

In our very own barrio

We got pretty toasty ourselves over beer and plantains at—where else—El Niño. We headed down to this thriving Crown Street eatery to find out more about El Niño's feminine doppelganger.

"La Niña isn't that the restaurant down the street?" our waiter, Thom, asked. Phoebe, our hostess, hadn't heard too much about La Niña, but she fondly remembered picking up "big, huge, amazing, incredible shells" on California beaches after storms caused by El Niño. Bernadette, the restaurant's office manager, made it clear that El Niño won't be changing its name anytime soon. "We thought about it, but the sign's too expensive," she said. She told us that weather patterns are getting harder to call these days. "We used to have three satellites for weather in outer space, and now we only have two." She did claim to be a Geoff Fox enthusiast.

As for what's really coming up in the weather this winter, the jury is still out. But the Pacifico beer we ordered to, shall we say, test the waters, came ice-cold. La Niña is on her way.

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