Drake and El Nino

A Possible Explanation for the Reportedly Bizarre Weather of California in 1579

The 1997 El Nino
NOAA Graphic

The following is adapted from the conclusion of Chapter VIII "The Climate of Nova Albion in the Summer of 1579" of my yet-unpublished book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored. In 1995 I presented this information as part of a lecture at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona and as a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries, held that year at the University of Texas in Arlington. I had intended to keep most of the details of this research from more general view until publication of the book, but because of the great amount of attention presently focused on the El Nino phenomenon I include it here now, in the fall of 1997.

If you arrived at this page from somewhere other than the relevant page on this site, you may want to have a look there to place the below into context. In short, the following is part of a secondary investigation. The primary investigation established that there is good reason to think that the reports from the Golden Hind of very cold weather along the Northwestern American coast during the summer of 1579 were truthful - the evidence for this, alluded to on the prior page on this web site and documented in my book, is based on tree ring analysis - dendroclimatology. The secondary investigation, undertaken without much anticipation of success, undertook to search for a cause of the odd cold weather; the results were surprising.

On to El Nino - the periodic rise of ocean water temperatures along the Pacific coasts of the Americas, an event sometimes accompanied by devastating floods, crop failures, disruption of fisheries, and other generally negative effects. After entering one blind ally after another in a search for a reasonable explanation of the cold summer- volcanic activity, the "little ice age," and so on - this particular avenue was reached by my encounter with two papers by Dr. William H. Quinn of the College of Oceanography, Oregon State University. One, published in 1987 in the Journal of Geophysical Research, is called "El Nino Occurrences Over the Past Four and a Half Centuries." The other, presented in 1990 at a "Workshop on Paleoclimatic Aspects of El Nino/Southern Oscillation" held at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, is an extended abstract titled "A preliminary Record of Southern Oscillation-Related Activity Extending about 1368 Years into the Past."

The most immediate and dramatic effects of El Nino are usually felt along the equatorial coasts of Ecuador and Peru, where, during the Spanish exploration and conquest of the region in 1524 and again in 1532, the expeditions of the Conquistador Pizarro provided the first records of conditions now considered symptomatic of El Nino. These and many other such historical records enabled Dr. Quinn to construct a chronology of past El Nino events.

Exceptionally strong El Ninos are uncommon and particularly irregular. In the 462 years between 1525 and 1987, over one hundred El Ninos are identified in Dr. Quinn's reconstruction; only nine of these were considered "very strong" events, for an average of slightly less than two per century. In one instance, 143 years passed between "very strong" events, while another pair of such El Ninos occurred within a single decade.

It happens that one of the rare "very strong" El Nino events identified by Dr. Quinn took place in 1578, the year in which Drake sailed into Pacific South American waters (a correspondence which I was the first to notice, it seems). This 1578 event is the first "very strong" El Nino in Dr. Quinn's record, and it also happens to be the first of the most widely separated pair mentioned above; there is not another "very strong" El Nino recorded in the 16th or 17th century reconstructions.

Drake was just barely in the time and place of this event. He entered the Strait of Magellan in the last days (by today's calendar) of August, 1578, and emerged into the Pacific a mere 16 days later, in the middle of September. The chronicles of the voyage mention no really unusual weather along Pacific Equatorial South America , although perhaps a closer look might be taken at both the extremely mild conditions encountered in the notoriously dangerous strait, and the very severe storm that almost immediately greeted the Golden Hind's emergence into the Pacific (a storm that lasted for nearly two months and blew the Golden Hind about willy-nilly, while sinking one of the two accompanying ships and propelling the other into a retreat that ended back in England). The Golden Hind was finally, in mid-November, able to proceed northward along the coast, finding Valpariso, at the middle of Chile, in mid-December and Lima, Peru, at the end of February, 1579. So, it seems from the lack of mention of any extreme weather at this stage of the journey that the 1578 El Nino had dissipated by the time Drake arrived in the classic area of its maximum strength.

The above information aroused immediate suspicion that there might be a connection between the 1578 El Nino and the following frigid conditions to the north encountered by Drake in the early and middle summer of 1579. While coincidence was (and remains) a possibility, the odds of two such climatic anomalies occurring so close together in time and space seemed remote. However, five of Dr. Quinn's nine "very strong" El Ninos have occurred since European settlement of the Pacific Northwest; none of these five events were followed by the sort of weather described in the narratives of the circumnavigation. This might be considered negative evidence for the idea that there was a connection between the two events; but nine, let alone five, meteorological events do not provide an adequate statistical base from which to draw any conclusions, and even the much more numerous weaker El Ninos are followed by a bewildering variety of climatic conditions.

The level of complexity involved becomes evident on reading Dr. Quinn's work about a wider matter, of which El Nino is but a part. El Nino has been found to be a regional manifestation of a much larger periodic event called the "Southern Oscillation," which involves gigantic "see-saw" fluctuations in the atmospheric pressure and oceanic temperature patterns of the Pacific and Indian oceans, from the Americas to Africa. Evidence used by Dr. Quinn in his remarkable chronology of these episodes includes the occurrences of the American El Nino, and, from over half way around the world to the west, ancient annual records of the level of the Nile River at Alexandria. The annual Nile flood, on which Egyptian agriculture has been based for thousands of years, corresponds in intensity to the summer monsoons of Ethiopia, India, and eastern Indonesia. The intensity of the monsoons is in turn linked to the status of the Southern Oscillation; strong swings of the Southern Oscillation are associated with monsoon drought or deluge, and on the other side of the world with the presence or absence of El Nino.

El Nino events and extreme monsoons are two manifestations of the Southern Oscillation which happen to be heavily documented. Dr. Quinn also writes of other anomalous climatic conditions associated with the Southern Oscillation, such as rainfall extremes in northeastern Brazil - a very long way east of Ethiopia. Although the Southern Oscillation is far from being fully understood, it has been established that it relates to climatic anomalies in equatorial regions almost around the world. But what of correspondences to the north or south? Even less is known about such relationships. The sort of written records kept by the Egyptians and the Spanish are lacking for areas such as Australia and the American northwest, and climatic reconstructions detailed enough to be useful, for example those developed by tree-ring research, are not yet numerous enough to present a seamless large-scale picture.

Notwithstanding these complexities and uncertainties, Dr. Quinn, when I spoke with him, expressed no great surprise at the weather reports from the Golden Hind or at the corroborating tree-ring evidence. Nor was it necessary for him to engage in torturous hypothesizing in order to offer an explanation, although what he said is, of course, based at least in part on theory. It seems that the observation has been made that after an El Nino, atmospheric and oceanic conditions do not necessarily return to normal right away, but rather tend to first rebound somewhat in an opposite "anti-El Nino" direction. This may be accompanied by a temporary southerly shift of a feature called the Pacific Subtropical High Pressure Cell, a shift with the potential for temporarily changing the pattern of the northern winds aloft so as to allow the unseasonable intrusion of Arctic weather into areas normally well to the south of such influences. It is this mechanism, operating during the year after the powerful El Nino of 1578, Dr. Quinn informally suggested to me, that might have been the immediate cause of the severe cold weather encountered by the Golden Hind in the California summer of 1579.

Under what conditions the icebox door might be unlocked after an El Nino event, and under what further circumstances and to what extent Arctic weather might then unseasonably enter southerly regions, are, in the new light of the apparent truth of Francis Fletcher's weather report, questions of more than passing interest to anyone on the Northwest Coast of America - never mind just Drake scholars. Obviously there is much more to be examined regarding this matter. It is this investigator's hope that the evidence and indications presented here (and more extensively in the book) will inspire those with the appropriate climatological interests and expertise to delve further into this important subject.

Author's Note: Much of this material is adapted from my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored, in which these and neighboring thickets are explored much more deeply than on these few web pages. Thus there may be references here not fully explained, or answers missing their questions. Also lacking here is documentation, provided in the book by 782 endnotes. - Oliver Seeler

Nova Albion Research
Copyright 1996, 1997 by Oliver Seeler
Please feel free to send your comments to oseeler@mcn.org
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