Researchers say that the El Niño phenomenon that has confounded climatologists in recent decades may have played a role in determining the course of history. Researchers speculate that the mysterious warming of the Pacific Ocean's surface may have allowed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to lead a successful journey around the world nearly 500 years ago.
In 1519, Magellan's fleet of five ships sailed west from Spain, across the Atlantic Ocean to South America. Then, it began sailing down the eastern coast of the continent. Magellan was intent on finding a westward route to the Pacific Ocean and, ultimately, the Spice Islands (now part of Indonesia).
The voyage was riddled with difficulties. As the crew sailed farther from the equator, the seas became tempestuous. After one of the vessels was lost, the crew decided to stop until weather conditions improved. Finally, over a year after leaving Spain, the fleet found the strait which would later be named for Magellan. After 38 grueling days, Magellan's remaining four ships finally reached the Pacific Ocean. It was there, according to Magellan's journal entries dated November 28, 1520, that the fleet encountered unusually mild weather.
At that point, Magellan believed that success was his. But he had underestimated the size of the mighty Pacific. He had wrongly predicted that he would reach the Spice Islands in only a few days. Meanwhile, however, his men were dying. Many suffered from scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. After four months, the four ships finally crossed the Pacific Ocean. They docked in the Philippines, north of Magellan's plotted course.
It was in the Philippines that the journey ended for Magellan. He was killed while fighting with native people.
For centuries, researchers have had questions about the nature of Magellan's journey. They have wondered why the explorer sailed to the Philippines, north of his destination. They have also pondered possible explanations for the unusually calm seas that Magellan's fleet encountered upon reaching the Pacific. Now, two anthropologists think they may have some answers. They are Scott M. Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University and Richard Callaghan of the University of Calgary in Canada.
Fitzpatrick and Callaghan suspect that Magellan's passage across the Pacific Ocean may have been eased by the calming effects of the abnormally warm ocean currents called El Niño. When an El Niño occurs, the waters of the Equatorial Pacific become warmer than normal. This creates rising air that changes wind and weather patterns. The effects can be seen worldwide in the form of droughts in some places and floods in others. The researchers know from tree ring data that an El Niño was in fact occurring in 1519 and 1520.
El Niño conditions, the researchers wrote in a paper to be published in the Journal of Pacific History, "may have been largely responsible for structuring the route and extent of what many consider the world's greatest voyage."
So why did Magellan go to the Philippines? It was the El Niño-generated winds, Fitzpatrick and Callaghan speculate, that took the fleet north. Allowing his ships to simply sail with prevailing winds would have enabled Magellan to get by with fewer crew members. This would have been necessary, given that so many of them had been struck down with scurvy. Considering the weakened state of Magellan's crew, it is possible that it was the El Niño that enabled the fleet to make it across the Pacific.
Another possibility is that Magellan wanted to go north. The explorer's writings indicate that he chose a northerly route because of reports of a famine in the Spice Islands. Researchers say that this supports the El Niño theory, since El Niño events often result in famine-producing droughts in that region.
Researchers now believe that El Niño events may have contributed to the voyages of other famous explorers, including Sir Francis Drake in 1578 and Captain James Cook in 1769.
Although Magellan did not live to see the completion of the voyage, his name lives on, largely because his crew pressed on after their leader's death. The remaining men took two of the ships to the Spice Islands. Once loaded with spices, one of the ships headed back to Spain the way it had come, while the other continued westward, reaching Spain in September 1522. It became the first ship to sail around the world.