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Arrival in Ecuador
February 14, 1998
By Mark Hoover
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At almost 9,000 feet, the thin air of Quito, Ecuador makes the unaccustomed traveler feel a little light-headed. So does the prospect of the adventure we are about to embark upon. I flew here last night with Mike McPhaden, an oceanographer from Seattle's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, who has made a career of studying El Niño and the ocean-atmosphere systems it lives in. Mike will accompany us as we make our way toward NOAA's research ship Ka'imimoana later this week at "0-95" (0 degrees latitude, 95 degrees west longitude), right on the equator...but first we will cruise through the Galapagos islands on a smaller vessel, to look at El Niño's handiwork first-hand.

As our jet slipped through the night toward Quito, I was transfigured by the view outside my window. Clouds lay upon the mountains like thrown silk. Far above them, a second deck sealed out knowledge of the country below, an infinite field of chipped flint, glinting with pale iridescence from a gibbous moon hung above. And then the lights of the city broke through the clouds. The plane descended. Hugging the contours of the ground, it gingerly picked its way between mountain peaks and volcanoes. As I walked off the plane, I noticed a thick sweat of moisture beaded upon the wings, condensed out of the saturated air.

We leave for the Galapagos at seven this morning. The islands go by many names; I like the poetry of Islas Encantidas, the Enchanted Islands, coined by pirates on the lam, for the mists which often render the islands invisible. First we fly to Guayaquil, at sea level on the coast of Ecuador, which is about as drastic a climate change as you can make in a half-hour flight. Quito is perched in the Ecuadorian sierra, and enjoys a cool, mountain climate; Guayaquil right now is sweltering, humid, and flooded. From Guayaquil we fly about 700 miles west to the Galapagos, a group of volcanic islands which normally have arid or even desert climate, but which El Niño has transformed with an abundance of rain. The forecast this week is for more rain and intense tropical humidity—we're on the equator here—and I'm sure I'll relish the memory of last night's cool evening in Quito many times in the next few days. We are close, very close here. El Niño lies just over the mountains, and later today we will have arrived.


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