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Tracking El Niño Site Map
Heading to Ground Zero
February 13, 1998
By Mark Hoover
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Ok, the gloves are off.

I'm packing right now for a trip to wrestle with the beast on its home turf, a journey to the ground zero of El Niño. Take a map, and draw a bull's eye 700 miles west of Ecuador, in the east Pacific. The cross hairs will lie on the Galapagos Islands, directly on the equator. That's where we're headed to find out what this thing's made of...Mano a Niño.

I'm standing as I type this, because of...a certain recent soreness...courtesy of my doctor. First the shot for yellow fever. Then one for typhoid. Tetanus. Hepatitis. (With the most assertive look I could muster, I passed on the polio-two shots-and trusted that my immune system remembered the sugar cube from first grade). And then the pills. Malaria medicine that makes you feel like you just took George Foreman's best left hook to the gut. Antibiotics, in case Montezuma pays a visit. Bonine, for seasickness-I got five boxes of that. You have to sit...er, stand...in the reception room for 20 minutes after the shots to see if there's a reaction. Here's my reaction: next time, we're going after a story in Chicago.

In the afternoon I'm meeting up in Miami with the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab's Mike McPhaden. McPhaden is the chief scientist (and co-architect) of the TOGA/TAO buoy array that stretches across the Pacific ocean almost to Australia; it's the "distant early warning" system of ocean monitors that first detected El Niño a year ago. We'll fly together to Quito, Ecuador, where we meet up with our television crew, who's been filming this past week in Peru. Next, we head out to the Galapagos, where we've hired a boat-ominously named Orca (remember the movie Jaws?)-to take us through the islands, guided by a local naturalist, as we document the transformations wrought by El Niño for both this Web site and for next fall's NOVA television show. Of particular interest are the many rumored changes in living things, from corals to the penguins of the Galapagos, who record in their genes, and express in their bodies, evidence of many thousands of past El Niños.

And then we depart the Galapagos, and head out to the high seas, for a 36-hour cruise west to rendezvous with NOAA's smart new oceanographic ship Ka'imimoana. Once aboard, we'll participate in the deployment of an ATLAS buoy, a dangerous business that requires heavy cranes, in-the-water operations in wetsuits, and anchoring the buoy securely to the ocean floor 5,000 feet below with railcar wheels, cable, and special acoustic-release mechanisms. The ship itself is a floating laboratory as well, and we will recreate here on the site the entire experience of working and researching in the tropical Pacific, in the core of El Niño.

My doctor made me promise to eat nothing but potatoes and bottled water. I may even humor him. After all, it looks like there'll be plenty of other opportunities for excitement.


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