photo of J. Madeleine Nash '65

Unlocking El Niņo

J. Madeleine Nash '65 likens herself to a favorite literary character: Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, who must make sense of a bizarre fantasy-land after a tornado sweeps her up and deposits her there.

Such is the life of a science writer-especially one such as Nash, whose preferred beat is extreme weather. El Niņo: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker is Nash's most recent book (for more information see the Summer 2002 books section) and was published this year by Warner Books.

El Niņo is an abnormal warming of waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean that usually happens once every two to seven years. It can cause deadly flooding and devastating droughts. It was first reported by Peruvian seamen, who called it Corriente del Niņo-the Current of the Christ Child.

Nash's fascination with El Niņo began in 1996 when she traveled to Panama to cover an international conference on coral reefs for TIME magazine. Columbia University oceanographer Rick Fairbanks lectured on the connection between El Niņo and recurrent monsoon failures in India. If scientists could only figure out what linked the two phenomena, Fairbanks said, then they would solve one of the world's greatest climatological mysteries.

In 1997 while on safari in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Nash learned that that region's drought also was blamed on El Niņo. "First India, now southern Africa-I found it amazing that a warming of the tropical Pacific off the coast of Peru could affect areas so far distant. As soon as the opportunity arose, I resolved, I would write about it. As it happened, I didn't have long to wait. While we were roaming about in the African bush, a new El Niņo was surging to life, and long before it ended it would lay claim to being the most powerful El Niņo of the century."

Nash's ensuing articles on El Niņo for TIME evolved into her book. El Niņo: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker is a saga of scientists, civilians, storms and ecological shifts. It reveals the sources of El Niņo, tracing its far-reaching effects on the lives of people around the world and how the climatic upheaval unites diverse weather disasters.

Nash's first job out of college was clipping newspaper articles for TIME editors. Soon she became a reporter for TIME, covering topics such as business, art, politics and religion. She then served as TIME's senior science correspondent for 15 years, winning three awards for her reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The position gave me license to roam across an intellectual landscape even vaster than the earth itself," Nash says. "Each time I ventured into a new field of science, I felt that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I had been magically transported to a faraway place inhabited by exotic beings. Over time I learned how to translate the arcane languages they spoke and even to speak them myself."

When Nash was a toddler, a hurricane roared through the coastal North Carolina city where she was born. She stood at the window with glee, clapping each time the wild wind snatched the limb off a tree or bent its trunk to the ground. "Among the stories I remember most vividly from my childhood," says Nash, "are my grandmother's tale of being struck by lightning-twice-and my mother's account of how she survived a tornado that destroyed her neighborhood."

Just like Dorothy.

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