During February 1998, a powerful jet stream pounded California with an unrelenting series of wet Pacific storms. Longstanding rainfall records fell. Oceanfront homes slumped into the roiling surf. Roads washed out across the state. Federal disaster areas were declared in 35 counties. At least 17 people died. The Red Cross opened 79 shelters and fed more than 100,000 people.
The culprit? An extreme El Niño, a phenomenon triggered by a warming of waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that shifts weather patterns around the world.
El Niño’s ills weren’t confined to California: In 1997-98, torrential rains washed away villages in northern Peru, heat waves rolled across Australia, and massive peat-bog fires cloaked Indonesia in a thick haze. All told, the impacts caused upwards of $45 billion in global economic losses and claimed an estimated 23,000 lives.