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Magellan May Have Encountered El Nino During His Travels

May 16, 2008

Scientists believe El Nino may have assisted Magellan’s first trip around the world nearly 500 years ago.

On Nov. 28, 1520, explorer Ferdinand Magellan encountered fair weather after days of battle through the rough waters south of South America. From there, the calming effects of El Nino may have eased his passage across the Pacific Ocean, researchers speculate.

An El Nino creates rising air that changes wind and weather patterns when the Equatorial Pacific become warmer than normal. The effects can be worldwide, including drought in the western Pacific and more rain in Peru and the west coast of South America.

According to tree ring data, an El Nino was occurring in 1519 and 1520 and may even have begun in 1518.

After passing through the strait later named for him, Magellan sailed north along the South American coast and then turned northwest, crossing the equator and eventually arriving at the Philippines, where he was killed in a battle with natives.

He sought the so-called Spice Islands, now part of Indonesia, but his course took him north of that goal.

Anthropologists Scott M. Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University and Richard Callaghan of the University of Calgary, Canada, believe the route may have been dictated by mild conditions and favorable winds during an El Nino.

Fitzpatrick said they were studying early exploration trips and were struck by the fact that Magellan sailed unusually far north.

“We had not considered El Nino until afterward, when we were trying to account for why the winds were so calm when he came into the Pacific,” he said. “We knew it was unusual.”

A computer to model wind and weather conditions across the Pacific was used during an El Nino and then compared to Magellan’s route, the researchers said.

Fitzgerald said Magellan’s journals show that many of the crew had died or were sick with scurvy, so he may simply have chosen to sail with the existing winds and currents, reducing the number of crew needed to operate his ships.

This would have allowed him to move west along the path of least resistance. “It could have been an adept maneuver,” the researchers wrote.

Magellan wrote that he chose the northerly route because of reports of a famine in the Spice Islands. This also could be accurate as El Nino conditions often result in drought in that region, Callaghan and Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzgerald said Magellan had received correspondence from a friend in the Spice Islands before setting out so he may have known about a famine there. But no one knows for sure because the correspondence was destroyed in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The Researchers said El Nino conditions “may have been largely responsible for structuring the route and extent of what many consider the world’s greatest voyage.” The actual reasons for Magellan’s choice of route remain uncertain.

Fitzpatrick said the trip might be the earliest record of an El Nino.

In 1578, Sir Francis Drake encountered mild conditions in the Strait of Magellan, but he then faced months of Pacific storms that scattered his ships, sinking one. Captain James Cook seems also to have benefited from El Nino conditions centered on 1769 during his Pacific exploration.

Fitzpatrick and Callaghan’s research is summarized in Friday’s edition of the journal Science. It is to be published in full in the August edition of the Journal of Pacific History.

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