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What Is El Niño?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Climate models are predicting that this fall, there's a 75 percent chance that an El Niño will occur. But just what is this phenomenon, and how does it affect us?

At its simplest, El Niño refers to unusually warm water temperature in the Pacific Ocean near the equator, and the ensuing weather and climate effects that warm water causes. During an El Niño, the surface temperature of the water is generally 1.5 degrees to 2.5 degrees Celsius above average. (This is the opposite of La Niña, which is characterized by unusually cool temperatures.) The natural phenomenon occurs at random intervals of 2 to 7 years and can last anywhere from nine months to a year—although in extreme circumstances, El Niños have lasted several years.

The slight rise in water temperature has wide ranging effects in weather across the globe. El Niño episodes are associated with increased rainfall across the east-central and eastern Pacific, including the west coasts of North and South America, and with drier-than-normal conditions over northern Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Most of the affected areas will also experience warmer-than-normal winters during El Niño.

The normal wind conditions and atmospheric pressure conditions over the Pacific Ocean are responsible for the regular upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich water off the coast of South America, which sustains a large fish population. During El Niño, the changes in pressure and wind patterns reduce this upwelling and, in turn, result in a decreased fish population. At least as much as the weather—which can often include dangerous flooding—this effect on the fishing economy is one of the more devastating impacts of El Niño.

Though we last saw an El Niño in 2004, the strongest El Niño in recent history occurred in 1997-'98 [PDF]. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), water temperatures along the west coast of South America were 4 degrees Celsius above average, which resulted in extreme weather patterns across the U.S. The span from December to February was the second warmest and seventh wettest since 1895. Several states saw flooding, while the Northeast was hit with an ice storm and Florida experienced an unusually high number of tornadoes. This predicted El Niño could be similarly bad: NASA climatologist Bill Patzert said that "a pattern of sea surface heights and temperatures has formed that reminds me of the way the Pacific looked in the spring of 1997." For more on the science behind El Niño, check out NASA's ScienceCast, below. 

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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