It has been estimated that severe El Niño-related flooding and droughts in Africa, Latin America, North America, and Southeast Asia resulted in more than 22 000 lives lost and in excess of $36 billion in damages during 1997–98. As one of the most severe events this century, the 1997–98 El Niño was unique not only in terms of physical magnitude, but also in terms of human response. This response was made possible by recent advances in climate-observing and forecasting systems, creation and dissemination of forecast information by institutions such as the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction and NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, and individuals in climate-sensitive sectors willing to act on forecast information by incorporating it into their decision-making. The supporting link between the forecasts and their practical application was a product of efforts by several national and international organizations, and a primary focus of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Global Programs (NOAA/OGP).
NOAA/OGP over the last decade has supported pilot projects in Latin America, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Africa to improve transfer of forecast information to climate sensitive sectors, study linkages between climate and human health, and distribute climate information products in certain areas. Working with domestic and international partners, NOAA/OGP helped organize a total of 11 “Climate Outlook Fora” around the world during the 1997–98 El Niño. At each Outlook Forum, climatologists and meteorologists created regional, consensus-based, seasonal precipitation forecasts and representatives from climate-sensitive sectors discussed options for applying forecast information. Additional ongoing activities during 1997–98 included research programs focused on the social and economic impacts of climate change and the regional manifestations of global-scale climate variations and their effect on decision-making in climate-sensitive sectors in the United States.
The overall intent of NOAA/OGP's activities was to make experimental forecast information broadly available to potential users, and to foster a learning process on how seasonal-to-interannual forecasts could be applied in sectors susceptible to climate variability. This process allowed users to explore the capabilities and limitations of climate forecasts currently available, and forecast producers to receive feedback on the utility of their products. Through activities in which NOAA/OGP and its partners were involved, it became clear that further application of forecast information will be aided by improved forecast accuracy and detail, creation of common validation techniques, continued training in forecast generation and application, alternate methods for presenting forecast information, and a systematic strategy for creation and dissemination of forecast products.