Heading to Ground Zero
February 13, 1998
By Mark Hoover
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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