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What Is El Niño?

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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
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

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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