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What Is El Niño? A weather phenomenon called El Niño is blamed for severe flooding, drought, crop shortages, coral bleaching, and even the spread of the deadly hantavirus in some areas. How can it have such a widespread impact? El Niño, "boy child", is a series of warm water currents, an ocean-driven weather pattern with surprisingly serious effects, which recurs every few years. It was first noticed by fishermen off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador, who observed that the warmer currents of an El Niño year tended to deplete fish populations as it reduced the amount of their food: algae, which thrives in cooler temperatures. In 1957, Jacob Bjerknes discovered the connection between El Niño and weather events such as increased rainfall. Every few years, western-flowing trade winds weaken, allowing warm waters to flow farther east. As these warm currents reach South America, moisture builds up and thunderstorms increase causing heavy flooding and mudslides in some normally dry regions such as the desert areas of Peru. Originally scientists thought that Peru was the only area affected but further research uncovered that El Niño causes weather changes in many parts of the globe. Moreover, El Niño has a sibling: La Niña, "little girl". Like El Niño, it is a recurring weather pattern, but it has the opposite effect, it brings cooler water currents, usually bringing colder winters to normally warm areas. La Niña and El Niño tend to alternate, and in fact they are part of one seesaw barometric pressure phenomenon.

The Indonesian government now says more than 94,000 people died in the tsunami disaster. The figure is an increase of more than 13,000 on the previous number reported dead in Indonesia, whose western island of Sumatra was closest to the epicentre of the 26 December earthquake.

The health ministry says the number of dead is likely to reach more than 100,000. There are still dead bodies in the rubble. Huge graves are being dug for the thousands of victims.

The government says it has enough food and medicine for survivors but it has been struggling to get aid to many areas. The UN's relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland says a million people need aid.

Relief has begun to arrive the devastated Aceh province in significant quantities, speeded up by the arrival of US military helicopters. But distribution is being hampered by the devastation to local infrastructure.

Heavy rains after the tsunami in Aceh have increased the risk of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

Tsunami among world's worst disasters

Hurricanes have also wrought devastation on a huge scale
The massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean has been described by relief experts as one of the worst natural disasters in recent history.
With a death toll so far of well over 100,000, the wave is particularly notable for the extent of its reach, from Indonesia in the east, to the coast of Africa, some 7,000km (4,000 miles) away.

The high numbers of Westerners affected and the speed at which footage from the disaster has reached our television screens have also added to its impact.

The highest death toll from a tsunami until now happened in 1896, when 27,000 people were drowned following an earthquake off the coast of Japan, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

Cyclones and famine

But there have been other natural disasters which have also claimed tens of thousands of lives.

In 1970, up to 500,000 people were killed in Bangladesh when a cyclone whipped up winds of 230 km/h which swept away entire villages.

2004 Asian quake disaster - toll so far exceeds 110,000
2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran - official casualty figure is 26,271
1976 Earthquake in Tangshan, China, kills 242,000
1970 Cyclone in Bangladesh kills 500,000
1923 Tokyo earthquake kills 140,000
1887 China's Yellow River breaks its banks in Huayan Kou killing 900,000
1896 Tsunami kills 27,000 in Japan
1815 Volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Indonesia's Sumbawa Island kills 90,000
1556 Earthquake in China's Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan provinces kills an estimated 830,000

China suffered similar losses when an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 almost obliterated the north-eastern city of Tangshan in 1976. The official number of people killed was put at around 250,000, although some said the figure was more like 750,000.

In 1984 and 1985, a famine in Ethiopia killed an estimated 900,000 people.

Last year, a 6.3 quake devastated the Iranian city of Bam, killing 26,271, according to official figures.

Hurricane Mitch, which devastated much of Honduras and Nicaragua in Central America in 1998, killed 10,000 people and left some two million homeless.

The 1988 earthquake in Armenia, measuring 6.9, killed nearly 25,000.

And one of the worst monsoons in living memory claimed the lives of 10,000 people in Thailand over the course of three months in 1983. Some 100,000 people contracted waterborne diseases as a result of the storm.

Snow storms, forest fires and avalanches have all proved deadly. A single landslide in Peru in 1970 killed more than 18,000 people in the town of Yungay.

In 1887, about 900,000 people died when the Yellow River in China burst its banks in the worst-ever recorded flooding.

A volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Indonesia's Sumbawa island in 1815 claimed the lives of more than 90,000 people as a blanket of lava and ash covered all around it, leading to agricultural devastation, famine and disease.

China's Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan provinces lost an estimated 830,000 people when they were hit, in 1556, by one of the worst earthquakes in history.