THE WATERS ALONG the barren coast of Peru are cold and flow northward during most of the year, but around Christmas time, they are warm and flow southward. The latter current was originally given the name El Nino, Spanish for “the boy.” Because of its timing, and because it is associated with refreshing rains, the name also refers to Child Jesus.

Every few years the current is exceptionally intense and persistent, bringing very heavy rains that transform parts of the coastal desert into a garden. At such times the fish (such as anchovies) that usually are abundant in the cold water, disappear temporarily. Today, the term El Nino is reserved for these interan-nual events which now are perceived as disasters even though they originally were ...

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