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Forecasting Andean rainfall and crop yield from the influence of El Niño on Pleiades visibility


Farmers in drought-prone regions of Andean South America have historically made observations of changes in the apparent brightness of stars in the Pleiades around the time of the southern winter solstice in order to forecast interannual variations in summer rainfall and in autumn harvests. They moderate the effect of reduced rainfall by adjusting the planting dates of potatoes, their most important crop1. Here we use data on cloud cover and water vapour from satellite imagery, agronomic data from the Andean altiplano and an index of El Niño variability to analyse this forecasting method. We find that poor visibility of the Pleiades in June—caused by an increase in subvisual high cirrus clouds—is indicative of an El Niño year, which is usually linked to reduced rainfall during the growing season several months later. Our results suggest that this centuries-old method2 of seasonal rainfall forecasting may be based on a simple indicator of El Niño variability.

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Figure 1: Correlations with central Andean high cloud in late June.
Figure 2: A diagram of the stars in the Pleiades of visual magnitude 6.0 or brighter.
Figure 3: Central Andean rainfall anomalies and El Niño.
Figure 4: Central Andean harvests and El Niño.

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We thank G. Urton for insights into Andean ethnoastronomy, G. Rasmussen for discussions on visibility and cirrus cloud, G. Scott for providing potato yield data for Puno department, Peru, and R. Bishop, K. Cook, D. Dearborn, D. Helfand, A. Kaplan, G. Kiladis, J. Lenters, M. Sarazin and B. Schafer for comments. M.A.C. thanks B. D'Achille for first making him aware of the Andean forecasting scheme.

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Correspondence to Benjamin S. Orlove.

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Orlove, B., Chiang, J. & Cane, M. Forecasting Andean rainfall and crop yield from the influence of El Niño on Pleiades visibility. Nature 403, 68–71 (2000).

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