Posts Tagged El Nino

Dec 17 2015

Fish Stocks Are Declining Worldwide, And Climate Change Is on the Hook

A fisherman shovels grey sole, a type of flounder, out of the hold of a ship at the Portland Fish Pier in Maine, September 2015. New research finds the ability of fish populations to reproduce and replenish themselves is declining across the globe. The worst news comes from the North Atlantic, where most species are declining. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

For anyone paying attention, it’s no secret there’s a lot of weird stuff going on in the oceans right now. We’ve got a monster El Niño looming in the Pacific. Ocean acidification is prompting handwringing among oyster lovers. Migrating fish populations have caused tensions between countries over fishing rights. And fishermen say they’re seeing unusual patterns in fish stocks they haven’t seen before.

Researchers now have more grim news to add to the mix. An analysis published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that the ability of fish populations to reproduce and replenish themselves is declining across the globe.

“This, as far as we know, is the first global-scale study that documents the actual productivity of fish stocks is in decline,” says lead author Gregory L. Britten, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine.

Britten and some fellow researchers looked at data from a global database of 262 commercial fish stocks in dozens of large marine ecosystems across the globe. They say they’ve identified a pattern of decline in juvenile fish (young fish that have not yet reached reproductive age) that is closely tied to a decline in the amount of phytoplankton, or microalgae, in the water.

“We think it is a lack of food availability for these small fish,” says Britten. “When fish are young, their primary food is phytoplankton and microscopic animals. If they don’t find food in a matter of days, they can die.”

The worst news comes from the North Atlantic, where the vast majority of species, including Atlantic cod, European and American plaice, and sole are declining. In this case, Britten says historically heavy fishing may also play a role. Large fish, able to produce the biggest, most robust eggs, are harvested from the water. At the same time, documented declines of phytoplankton made it much more difficult for those fish stocks to bounce back when they did reproduce, despite aggressive fishery management efforts, says Britten.

When the researchers looked at plankton and fish reproduction declines in individual ecosystems, the results varied. In the North Pacific — for example, the Gulf of Alaska — there were no significant declines. But in other regions of the world, like Australia and South America, it was clear that the lack of phytoplankton was the strongest driver in diminishing fish populations.

“When you averaged globally, there was a decline,” says Britten. “Decline in phytoplankton was a factor in all species. It was a consistent variable.”

And it’s directly linked to climate change: Change in ocean temperature affects the phytoplankton population, which is impacting fish stocks, he says.

Food sources for fish in their larval stage were also a focus of research published earlier this summer by Rebecca Asch, now a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University. Asch studied data from 1951 to 2008 on 43 species of fish collected off the Southern California coast and found that many fish have changed the season when they spawn. When fish spawned too early or too late in the season, there can be less plankton available to them, shrinking their chance of survival. She calls it a “mismatch” between when the fish spawn and when seasonal plankton blooms.

Knowing just how vulnerable our fisheries are to potential climate change is on the radar of NOAA Fisheries. The agency has put together a Fish Stock Climate Vulnerability Assessment report expected to be released in early 2016. And like many things associated with climate change, there will be winners and losers.

Jon Hare is the oceanography branch chief for NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center and a lead researcher on the agency’s assessment. He says they looked at 82 fish and invertebrate species in the Northeast. About half of the species, including Atlantic cod, were determined to be negatively impacted by climate change in the Northeast U.S. Approximately 20 percent of the species are likely to be positively impacted — like the Atlantic croaker. The remainder species were considered neutral.

Similar assessments are underway in the California Current and the Bering Sea, and eventually in all of the nation’s large marine ecosystems.

“This is where the idea of ecosystem-based management comes in. It’s not only fishing that is impacting these resources,” says Hare. “We need to take a more holistic view of these resources and include that in our management.”

Britten says the fact that productivity of a fishery can change should be an eye-opener for fisheries management.

“It’s no longer just pull back on fishing and watch the stock rebound. It’s also a question of monitoring and understanding the ability of stocks to rebound, and that’s what we demonstrated in this study. The rebound potential is affected as well,” says Britten.

Original story: Copyright 2015 NPR.

Dec 6 2015

Record-breaking Sea Levels in California


Re: Record-breaking Sea Levels in California
From: Abe Doherty, Climate Change Policy Advisor, California Ocean Protection Council
Date: December 3, 2015

California broke a record late last month: Sea levels at several tide stations in Southern California reached higher elevations than ever measured before, including during major storms. Water levels were higher than the “King Tides” that were predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), due to the ongoing El Niño, warm ocean temperatures and a minor storm. NOAA observations for San Diego, La Jolla and Santa Barbara show sea levels for November 25, 2015 higher than the maximum water levels ever recorded at these tide stations. The San Diego tide station has been recording sea levels since 1906, La Jolla since 1924 and Santa Barbara since 1974. San Diego experienced street flooding several miles inland when ocean water surged into the storm drain system.

During the past two years along the West Coast, surface waters have been unusually warm, which has contributed to higher coastal water levels. For example, the temperatures at the Santa Cruz wharf were as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal, which is greater than the 1997-1998 El Niño. These warm ocean waters and other regional processes have caused an increase in water levels of an additional few inches of higher water levels beyond what was experienced during past strong El Niños. Sea levels recently have been up to a foot higher than expected. These elevated water levels are on top of the long term sea level rise trends that have occurred due to climate change, such as the eight inches of sea level rise that has been documented over the last century at the San Francisco tide station.

The current El Niño also has broken a record for one indicator of strength of El Niño conditions based on sea surface temperatures near the equator. Past strong El Niños in 1982-83 and 1997-98 produced 6 to 10 inches of elevated sea levels that persisted from fall until late spring and then became elevated again the following summer through fall. Winter storms during these past strong El Niños caused peak water levels of 1.5 to 3 feet above predicted levels, with high waves, storm surges and heavy precipitation resulting in disaster declarations for flooding in coastal counties. It is only prudent to assume that the current strong El Niño conditions could bring similar trouble.

Climate disruption is amplifying extreme events that threaten the health and safety of families and communities in California and around the world.

Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading body on climate change assessment, tell us that climate change increases the intensity of drought, wildfire, and flooding. California recently earned an “A” grade in a national assessment of state efforts to prepare for climate change, and there is a lot of great work and collaboration happening at all levels in California to address sea-level rise. But the amount of sea-level rise will make a big difference in the success of our efforts to adapt. The State of California Sea-level Rise Guidance Document projects up to five and a half feet of sea-level rise by 2100. However, carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere have surpassed 400 parts per million. Scientists report that the last time the Earth had such levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, several million years ago, sea levels were more than twenty feet higher than current levels. The potential for sea-level rise greater than we now project is one of many reasons Californians take strong action to combat climate change.

Beyond adapting governance to an epoch of changing shoreline conditions, we also must be ready for floods, mudslides and coastal erosion during the current strong El Niño conditions. California state agencies have been working with emergency responders and local governments to prepare.

See for more information on California’s actions on climate.

See for information on preparedness for storm impacts.

See the California Ocean Protection Council website on El Niño for more information on elevated sea levels.

Nov 27 2015

El Nino pushes California calamari landings down

calamarilandingsA stand-up paddler strokes past squid boats anchored off of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ >> After several years of bounty, California’s commercial landings of market squid — the species better known to hungry diners as calamari — are down by about two-thirds compared to this time last year.

The squid are responding to this year’s El Nino conditions, scientists say, but whether their numbers are declining or they’re simply eluding fishermen is unknown, according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Laura Ryley.

Commercial fishermen brought in about 114,000 tons of market squid last year, generating more than $72 million. That was about 30 percent of California’s commercial fishing income for the year, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. Fishermen landed about 107,000 tons by the end of October last year, compared to only about 34,000 tons by the end of October this year.

“When we look for squid during or shortly after El Nino events, we find less of them,” said Louis Zeidberg, a professor at Cal State Monterey Bay.

El Nino conditions are caused by higher than average surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those higher temperatures may be altering the briny buffet of krill and other small crustaceans that market squid eat, Zeidberg said.

“The simplest conclusion is that what these guys like to eat gets scarcer during El Nino years, and what is there is crappier,” Zeidberg said. “They’re most likely starving to death.”

Fishermen typically catch market squid when they congregate in shallow, near-shore areas to spawn. Some squid may be seeking out cooler, deeper water and evading fishermen in the process, said Ryley.

“We’ve had anecdotal reports from fisherman that they’ve gone deeper,” Ryley said. “They’re deeper than their fishing gear can reach.”

But if market squid deposit their eggs in water that’s too cold, the eggs might take longer than the typical two-week period to develop, said Stanford University biology professor William Gilly.

“Just because the eggs are out of danger doesn’t mean they’re not in another kind of stress,” Gilly said. If eggs take more time to develop, hatchlings may emerge during the wrong season, and the next generation’s life cycle may be thrown out of whack.

Another theory is that market squid move off shore, Ryley said, or they may not be as successful at spawning during El Nino years. There may be a combination of factors at play, Zeidberg said, with some squid starving and the survivors swimming to deeper water.

The decline in market squid landings this year did not catch fishermen by surprise, said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association.

“They know when El Nino comes they’re not going to see squid,” Pleschner-Steele said. “We’re resilient, as long as the regulators allow enough flexibility for us to go from one fishery to another.”

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Nov 18 2015

El Niño could be the most powerful on record, scientists say


A key location of the Pacific Ocean is now hotter than recorded in at least 25 years, surpassing the temperatures during the record 1997 El Niño.

Some scientists say their measurements show that this year’s El Niño could be among the most powerful on record — and even toppling the 1997 event from its pedestal.

“This thing is still growing and it’s definitely warmer than it was in 1997,” said Bill Patzert, climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. As far as the temperature readings go, “it’s now bypassed the previous champ of the modern satellite era — the 1997 El Niño has just been toppled by 2015.”

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at Stanford University, called the temperature reading significant. It is the highest such weekly temperature above the average in 25 years of modern record keeping in this key region of the Pacific Ocean west of Peru.

“This is a very impressive number,” Swain said, adding that data suggest that this El Niño is still warming up. “It does look like it’s possible that there’s still additional warming” to come.

“We’re definitely in the top tier of El Niño events,” Swain said.

Temperatures in this key area of the Pacific Ocean rose to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above average for the week of Nov. 11. That exceeds the highest comparable reading for the most powerful El Niño on record, when temperatures rose 5 degrees Fahrenheit above the average the week of Thanksgiving in 1997.

The 5.4 degree Fahrenheit recording above the average temperature is the highest such number since 1990 in this area of the Pacific Ocean, according to the National Weather Service.

El Niño is a weather phenomenon involving a section of the Pacific Ocean west of Peru that warms up, causing alterations in the atmosphere that can cause dramatic changes in weather patterns globally.

For the United States, El Niño can shift the winter track of storms that normally keeps the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America wet and moves them over California and the southern United States. The northern United States, like the Midwest and Northeast, typically see milder winters during El Niño.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has already forecast a higher chance of a wet winter for almost all of California and the southern United States.

But the center’s deputy director, Mike Halpert, cautioned against reading too much into the record-breaking weekly temperature data.

El Niño has so far been underperforming in other respects involving changes in the atmosphere important to the winter climate forecast for California, he said.

One example: tropical rainfall has not extended from the International Date Line and eastward, approaching South America, as it did by this time in 1997.

“In 1997, that pattern has largely established itself,” Halpert said, but that pattern so far is “significantly weaker” than it was back then.

Still, Halpert said, “it’s not too late for things to develop.”

Patzert, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist, said the increase in ocean temperatures west of Peru was a result of a dramatic weakening of the normal east-to-west trade winds in the Pacific Ocean that were observed in October around the International Date Line.

That allowed the warm, tropical ocean waters in the western Pacific Ocean to surge to the Americas, leading to this increase in ocean temperatures observed last week.

The 1997 El Niño has been considered the strongest such event since the 1950s. The modern era of El Niño tracking came after the 1982-83 event, which came as a surprise and is considered the second strongest on record.

The 1997 El Niño was considered so strong and that scientists have been impressed that this El Niño could top that event.

Patzert likened it to the shocking defeat of the previously unbeaten Ultimate Fighting Championship champion Ronda Rousey over the weekend by Holly Holm. Or, he added, like the dethroning of a grand champion in sumo wrestling.

This El Niño “just flipped the 1997-98 El Niño out of the ring,” Patzert said.

El Niño is already being blamed for drought and wildfires in Indonesia, and the United Nations is warning about millions at risk from hunger in eastern and southern Africa and Central America from drought.

El Niño is believed to have played a role in the storms this spring that caused floods and ended droughts in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma. It’s also a factor in the fewer number of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean while there has been more of them in the eastern Pacific.

The unusually active hurricane season has already had impacts on California. Remnants of a summertime hurricane caused so much rain to pour down in Riverside County that an Interstate 10 bridge collapsed. It dumped so much hail near Lake Tahoe that snowplows were called to clear Interstate 80. Last month, an eastern Pacific hurricane, Patricia, became the strongest such cyclone recorded in the Western Hemisphere before it slammed into Mexico.

“It’s not as if we’re waiting for El Niño to actually manifest itself — it has in many ways already,” Patzert said. “There is no doubt: It’s coming.”

The big question is whether the above-average ocean temperatures will cause the mountains of Northern California — a critical source for the state’s largest reservoirs — to get rain instead of snow. Too much rain in those mountains would not be good for the state; snow is better because it can melt slowly in the spring and summer, gradually refilling reservoirs at a gentle pace. But precipitation coming down as rain there can force dam managers to flush out water to sea to keep reservoirs from overflowing dams.

“The really high elevations in the Sierra Nevada will do well,” Swain said, but it’s unknown whether the more important mid-level elevations will get rain or snow.

Scientists say they expect El Niño rains to be concentrated in the months of January, February and March.

“At some point, during December, we’ll transition to a much more active pattern” for storms, Swain said. “And by the end of December, and certainly by January, February and March, we’ll see above average precipitation, potentially well-above average.”

“El Niño is going to be a dominant factor this winter,” Swain said.

El Niño is also expected to provide once-in-a-generation waves on beaches not seen since the 1997-98 event, Patzert said, affecting the entire west coast of North America, “from British Columbia all the way down to Costa Rica.”

“The best surfing waves often precede the storms,” Patzert said. “If you have a great day of surfing — Malibu or Mavericks or someplace — during an El Niño, then in the next day or two you can expect a big storm.”


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Oct 29 2015

El Niño: Californians urged to buy flood insurance even if they’re not near water

With the strongest El Niño conditions in nearly 20 years already underway in the Pacific Ocean and chances increasing for heavy storms this winter, federal emergency officials on Friday urged Californians to buy flood insurance — even those who don’t live near creeks or rivers.

“We encourage everyone to take the threat seriously,” said Roy Wright, a deputy associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. “If there ever was a time to buy flood insurance, this is that time.”

Since 1978 in California, 37 percent of all flood insurance claims have come as a result of just two winters, 1982-83 and 1997-98 — the last two times that strong El Niño conditions similar to this year’s have occurred. In both of those winters, pounding rainfall caused flooding, mudslides and other damage across the state.

Many property owners who live in “high hazard” areas on flood maps that FEMA publishes are required to buy flood insurance as a condition of receiving a mortgage loan. But because there are large numbers of renters and people who have paid off their mortgages living near rivers, creeks and shorelines, only 30 to 50 percent of people living in high hazard areas nationwide have flood insurance, Wright said.

Most homeowner’s insurance policies cover damage if a tree falls through a roof or storms cause other harm, such as blowing patio furniture through a window. But they usually do not cover the damage from flood waters.

Insurance experts and FEMA officials, who spoke at a midmorning news conference, said that people who do not live in flood-prone areas can still be at risk for flooding during major, sustained storms. That can happen when storm drains back up and flood neighborhoods, or water runs down hillsides and into homes.

Forecasters say that January, February and March are expected to get the brunt of this winter’s heavy rainfall across California. There is a 30-day waiting period for new flood insurance policies to go into effect, Wright said Friday.

California’s current four-year drought, and the nearly 20 years that have passed since the state experienced punishing winter rains, have made many residents downplay or forget that wet winters historically have caused major destruction and fatalities.

“People always say ‘I never thought this would happen to me,'” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance. “But if it does, are you prepared to recover without insurance? It can be thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Flood insurance policies for people in high-risk areas can cost $1,000 or a more a year. Policies for people outside those high-risk areas, which are called “preferred risk” policies, are cheaper and can range from about $140 to $500 a year, Wright said.

The Golden Wheel mobile home park on Oakland Road in San Jose, Calif., flooded when Coyote Creek overflowed its banks during the El Nino-fueled winter of

The Golden Wheel mobile home park on Oakland Road in San Jose, Calif., flooded when Coyote Creek overflowed its banks during the El Nino-fueled winter of 1997-98. (Richard Wisdom/Staff file photo)

“That is often within someone’s reach in terms of the kind of investment they can make to buy down their risk,” he said. “Even if you buy that policy for only one year, this is the year to buy it.”

FEMA has posted its flood risk maps and tips to reduce flood risk at

In recent months, a number of flash floods and episodes of heavy rain have served as reminders of the risk of rising water. Last week, flash flooding trapped nearly 200 cars and trucks in mudslides up to 6 feet deep on Interstate 5 in Los Angeles County and Highway 58, 30 miles east of Bakersfield.

A month ago, 20 people died in flash floods along the Utah-Arizona border. Those killed included 13 children and a sheriff’s deputy.

Unlike most other kinds of insurance, which consumers buy from private insurance companies, flood insurance is funded through the federal government, due to a 1968 law enacted after many private companies declined to offer policies following heavy losses.

Jamie Court, a consumer advocate, said that people should consider buying flood insurance this year, and everyone should at least check their policies, although some residents probably don’t need to worry.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all, but this is a wake-up call,” said Court, who is president of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica. “People do have to re-evaluate their insurance coverage. This won’t affect me because I live on top of a hill with good drainage. I’m very unlikely to sustain flood damage. But on the other hand, people who aren’t in flood zones could flood if they are at the bottom of a hill or close to a storm drain.”

Experts said Friday that homeowners should check their roofs for areas that could leak, caulk drafty windows and doors, and trim dead trees that are near buildings. They also should take videos of their possessions in every room and store that video out of their home, either in the Internet cloud or another location. And they should update emergency kits with flashlights, battery-powered radios, bottled water and other supplies.

“Now is the time to do it. Once we get into the rains, it becomes much more difficult to act after the fact,” said Ken Katz, national property risk control director at Travelers Insurance. “Do it now. Take it seriously.”

In the Bay Area, some people are already at work.

Jason Alarid, whose family owns Henry’s Hi-Life, a restaurant in downtown San Jose near the Guadalupe River, which flooded in 1995, said he already had crews check his roof, and he’s talking with his insurance agent about his flood policy.

“With this El Niño, we think we need more coverage, just in case,” he said. “You never know what will happen.”

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Oct 22 2015

Central Coast Begins to Feel El Niño’s Effects

Hail Storms and Sea Snake Sightings Back Experts’ Warm Winter Predictions

The tropical yellow-bellied sea snake, spotted last week at Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard, is one anomaly suggesting a warm Californian winter.

Courtesy Photo – The tropical yellow-bellied sea snake, spotted last week at Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard, is one anomaly suggesting a warm Californian winter.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released an updated report Thursday on El Niño predictions for the upcoming year. Forecaster Jon Gottschalk of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service expects average sea-surface temperatures to climb more than 2 degrees Celsius, which would result in warmer weather and higher humidity through January.

His report also states that temperature hikes would be the most prominent along the Pacific coast. Within California specifically, forecasters expect above-median rainfall for the central and southern coasts. Though these warm temperatures had already been predicted, Gottschalk’s predictions expect a higher probability of these climate anomalies to actually occur.

However, according to NOAA’s deputy director Mike Halpert, there are other factors to consider. “While temperature and precipitation impacts associated with El Niño are favored, El Niño is not the only player. Cold-air outbreaks and snowstorms will likely occur at times this winter. However, the frequency, number, and intensity of these events cannot be predicted on a seasonal timescale,” said Halpert in his report statement.

Southern California residents could feel Halpert’s report only a day after its release. On Friday, Santa Barbara County experienced a string of intense thunderstorms that dropped hail the size of dimes in some areas. Multiple flash flood warnings took to the airwaves on Friday and Saturday as well, ranging from Long Beach all the way up to San Luis Obispo, and as far inland as Burbank.

Warmer ocean temperatures have not only brought new weather to Southern and Central California, but also new wildlife. PBS (Public Broadcasting Services) has reported that fishermen off the coast of San Diego are discovering Bluefin tuna, yellowtail, and dorado, which are all characteristically found further south in Mexico. Earlier this summer, San Diego and Orange County also saw phenomenal numbers of red crab corpses on their beaches following the species’ movement with the warmer waters.

The natural food chain has set up a domino effect, as these migrations of prey have also brought along their predators. According to CBS, a fisherman off the coast of Huntington Beach encountered a ten-foot hammerhead shark while fishing for yellowtail. The same beaches have also been home to sightings of great white sharks — one reportedly bumped a surfer in August.

Most recently, two sightings of a venomous sea snake species have been reported. On Thursday evening, Anna Iker reported seeing a yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamis platura) while at the beach with her kids. Next morning another local resident, Robert Forbes, reported a separate sighting. Heal the Bay, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, confirmed both sightings were at Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard but could not confirm they were of the same animal. The group later stated in a blog post that the last sighting of a yellow-bellied sea snake this far north was in the early 1980s, also during El Niño.

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Oct 13 2015

‘Ridiculously Resilient Ridge’ retires, making room for rain

El Niño is expected to bring a low-pressure system, which will replace the high-pressure system that's exacerbated California's drought.
El Niño is expected to bring a low-pressure system, which will replace the high-pressure system that’s exacerbated California’s drought.


The high pressure system that has shunted storms away from California for much of the past four years has dissipated, possibly for a long time.

The Ridiculously Resilient Ridge — as meteorologists and forecasters have dubbed the system because of its unusual persistence — has been absent for more than a month, according to a forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It hasn’t been like that since August really, and instead we’ve had sort of more variable weather patterns,” said Nate Mantua, a research scientist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz.

Mantua said the ridge will likely stay away, because it will have been replaced by a low-pressure trough.

“The expectations are as we get into Fall and Winter seasons more deeply, we’re going to see a lot more low pressure there, and that will be the more sort of dominant story,” Mantua said.

Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said low-pressure systems typically accompany El Niño events.

“Lower pressure in the Eastern Pacific is a classic pattern you’d see with an El Niño setting up with the jet stream a little more to the south, and that’s were we get into our storm track coming up from the southwest across California,” Boldt said.

The high-pressure ridge has created a large swath of unusually warm water off the coast. Boldt said the warm water would take months to dissipate and that its interaction with El Niño isn’t well understood. However, he said storms from strong El Niño events, which can bring heavy rains to California, could be bolstered by the warm water.

“That’s the part that is a little bit unprecedented. We don’t really have a good idea about how that might impact us, but warmer ocean temperatures typically lead to fueling the atmosphere and kind of energizing those storms. So I don’t think it’s going to be a negative for us,” Boldt said.

Mantua said the disappearance of the ridge and the presence of a strong El Niño is likely to produce a lot of rain in Southern California.

“[The low-pressure system is] just another factor that sort of favors a more normal winter, although I don’t think it’s going to be normal. I think it’s going to be probably an exciting winter, especially for Southern California,” Mantua said.

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Oct 12 2015

Pacific Bonito and Albacore Tuna Among Non-Native Fish Species Sighted in Alaska’s Warmer Waters

— Posted with permission of SEAFOODNEWS.COM. Please do not republish without their permission. —

Copyright © 2015

Seafood News


What are you doing here? Unusual fish appear in Alaska

It’s a fascinating time to be an Alaska fish biologist, charter operator or angler. With warmer ocean temperatures caused by El Nino and a phenomenon called “The Blob,” bizarre fish sightings are pouring in from around the state, particularly Southeast.

Scott Meyer, a state fishery biologist based in Homer, is amassing photos from colleagues and boat captains who have hauled in everything from a 900-pound ocean sunfish near Juneau to warm-water thresher sharks off the coast of Yakutat since July.

“It’s unusual to have these fish caught in near-shore fisheries,” Meyer said.

The warm-water mass nicknamed The Blob has been swirling around the Pacific Ocean for the past couple of years and moving north toward Alaska. At the same time, El Nino is in full force this year, a weather pattern characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures. As a result, ocean conditions including temperatures and food sources for fish are changing and species not normally found in state waters are showing up.

The peak of the 2015-2016 El Nino is approaching, with this year’s event among the strongest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Blob has raised temperatures in the North Pacific to record highs of about five to seven degrees Fahrenheit above average, according to NOAA.

Joe Orsi, a federal fisheries biologist in Juneau, said two massive sunfish swam into researchers’ gear in Southeast this summer as they conducted juvenile salmon surveys. Sunfish tend to favor warmer waters than those found in Alaska.

Other unusual reports include Pacific bonito caught in waters off Ketchikan, albacore tuna spotted near Prince of Wales Island, and yellow tail caught near Sitka.

As recently as last Saturday, an ocean sunfish washed ashore outside a lodge in Cordova.

Steve Moffitt, the state biologist who dissected the sunfish, said pilots and fishermen have reported several sightings of sunfish this summer. They were likely chasing the warmer currents and a huge mass of jellyfish that filled the waters around Cordova, he said.

“Sunfish really like to eat jellyfish,” Moffitt said.

California market squid are also starting to spawn in Southeast, Orsi said.

While the usual fish sightings are interesting from a biological perspective, they may be a cause for concern, Orsi said. One of his top questions: if ocean temperatures rise, how will big-money fish like salmon be affected?

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast the Southeast pink salmon harvest in 2015 at 58 million fish, yet fishermen hauled in only about 34 million pinks, according to state records.

Did The Blob and El Nino cause the low catch level? Hard to say definitively but it’s “certainly easy to point the finger at them,” said Dave Harris, Fish and Game’s commercial fishery management biologist in Juneau.

“Those are the most likely suspects,” Harris said.

Copyright © 2015

Oct 9 2015

El Niño: When will it start raining in California?

Frankie Frost — Marin Independent Journal

One of the strongest El Niño winters ever recorded since modern records first began in 1950 continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean, federal scientists reported Thursday.

So, with the likelihood for a wet winter increasing across drought-parched California, residents staring at empty reservoirs and dead lawns are asking: “When will it start pouring?”

The answer, experts said Thursday, is that winter storms in strong El Niño years typically bring more rain to California than normal, but they don’t do it any earlier.

An analysis of the five winters back to 1950 in which strong El Niño conditions similar to this year have occurred shows that in the Bay Area during those years, October has been only slightly wetter than the historic average. November has been nearly twice as wet in most. December has been oddly drier than normal in all five strong El Niño winters. And the bulk of the rain — the real downpours with high risk of floods and mudslides — have occurred in January and February.

“For the most part, our rainy season really gets going in November, and El Niño is an add-on to our regular rainy season,” said Jan Null, a meteorologist formerly with the National Weather Service who runs Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga.

Using San Francisco rainfall as a baseline for the Bay Area, in four of the five strong El Niño years — 1957-58, 1972-73, 1982-83 and 1997-98 — the overall annual rainfall totals have exceeded the historical average of 23.9 inches. In the wettest, 1997-98, the rainfall was double the average, at 47.22, with relentless rainfall in January and February that soaked the state and caused flooding and mudslides. Other Bay Area cities showed similar patterns.

“If we don’t see a lot of rain in December, we should realize that’s not a big deal; it’s happened before in strong El Niño years,” said Null, who compiled the data. “January and February have been big months.”

Only once, in 1965-66, when the annual rainfall totaled 15.84 inches, was there a drier-than-normal year in the Bay Area during a strong El Niño.

On average, 70 percent of the Bay Area’s yearly rain total falls during just four months: November, December, January and February, a staple of Northern California’s Mediterranean climate. Similarly, during the soaked winter of 1997-98, about 77 percent of the Bay Area’s rain fell in those same four months.


On Thursday, scientists at NOAA issued their monthly El Niño update. It reported very warm Pacific Ocean temperatures at the equator in a key area that indicates El Niño strength. The water there, off Peru, averaged 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the historic average in September, up from 3.72 degrees above average in August and slightly above September 1997, when it was 4 degrees warmer.

“This El Niño continues to be a strong event, and we have every expectation that it will remain this way through the winter,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. “The ocean has gotten a little warmer. It continues to strengthen.”

NOAA scientists said there continues to be a 95 percent chance that El Niño conditions will continue through the end of this year — up from 85 percent in June and 50 percent last spring.

El Niño is a disruption in the weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean, when the ocean’s surface warms more than normal. Those warm waters release heat, changing wind directions and the jet stream, which often brings more and wetter storms to California.

Halpert agreed that this year, if big storms come, they aren’t likely to come any earlier than in a normal winter.

For Californians wishing for soaking rains, Halpert said it’s important to remember that too much water too fast can also create major problems. He cited South Carolina, where 17 people have died this week in flooding related to Hurricane Joaquin, and at least 11 dams have breached.


“If you get 15 or 20 inches of rain in a few days, nobody has the infrastructure to deal with that,” he said. “I have expectations this winter when I turn on the news that I will see houses sliding into the Pacific Ocean. It’s not a good thing, but it’s almost a hallmark of these kinds of El Niño winters.”

However, Halpert noted that if storms aren’t cool enough they won’t build up the Sierra snowpack, a key water source for California. And with a significant rainfall deficit in most parts of the state, even a very wet winter might not end the drought in one year.

Nevertheless, with the likelihood of strong storms growing, California residents have begun preparing. Roofing companies are booked solid. Cities and water districts are stockpiling sandbags and clearing clogged stream channels. Utilities are trimming dead trees from four years of drought away from power lines.

“We are taking the prospect of a wet winter very seriously,” said Matt Nauman, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric, which provides electricity and natural gas to 16 million people from Bakersfield to Eureka. Nauman said the company has 350 arborists and foresters and 650 tree crews working to trim trees on 134,000 miles of overhead power lines to reduce the risk of blackouts when storms knock dead branches into power lines. Widespread blackouts happened during the 1997-98 and 1982-83 storms.

“We need to be ready whatever the weather ends up being,” he said.

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Oct 9 2015

Oncoming El Niño likely to continue species shakeup in Pacific

sunfishCrews from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center caught two large ocean sunfish far to the north of where the species usually occurs. Photo credit: AFSC.

 One-two punch of El Niño and “warm blob” could boost coastal temperatures and supercharge storms

Contributed by Michael Milstein

The emerging El Niño climate pattern that is warming the tropical Pacific Ocean is likely to continue–and could even increase–the appearance of marine species in unfamiliar places along the West Coast. This trend started with a vast “warm blob” of high temperature waters that has dominated the Northeast Pacific since 2014.

Previous El Niños coincided with large-scale redistribution of some West Coast marine mammals, fish and sea turtles. The combination of an anticipated strong El Niño and the blob may do the same, possibly in new and different ways, NOAA Fisheries researchers say.

“One of our big questions right now is, how can we best link observed changes in species distributions to changing environmental conditions?” said Dave Weller of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. Weller is chief scientist for the ongoing Collaborative Large Whale Survey, a joint survey for whales off the West Coast and Southeast Alaska by the SWFSC and Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

“We need to be clever about it in terms of using a range of observations and having eyes on the water in the form of ship surveys like this can really help,” Weller said.

NOAA Fisheries scientists have been tracking the blob since last year and are cooperatively following continued changes in ocean conditions through at-sea surveys, remote sensing and automated monitoring to understand how the changes are affecting marine ecosystems.

The blob has already driven temperatures in the North Pacific some 3 to 4 degrees C (about 5 to 7 degrees F) above average. Not since records began around 1900 have temperatures in the region been so warm for so long.

Temperature changes shift marine life

Already in the last month the survey spotted about 25 pilot whales around 50 miles off the Central California Coast. Pilot whales were once common off Southern California but largely disappeared following a strong El Niño pattern in the early 1980s. In the last few years pilot whales have begun to trickle back into the area, a sign they may be starting to reoccupy former habitat.

“This recent uptick in pilot whale sightings may be related to the warm blob’s influence,” Weller said. “If we pay close attention to the animals, they’re telling us something about changes in their environment. We now need to connect the puzzle pieces.” Scientists are also investigating connections between the blob and a harmful algal bloom along the West Coast that may be a factor in an unusual number of whale deaths in Alaska.

Rockfish surveys conducted by the SWFSC in May and June already showed the likely influence of warm water from the blob, turning up large catches of species typically seen during strong El Niño periods, and some never before seen in the survey. They included record high catches of pelagic red crabs and California spiny lobster, and the survey’s first-ever catches of warm-water species including greater Argonaut (a swimming octopus with a shell), slender snipefish and subtropical krill.

Offshore surveys by the AFSC pulled in warmer-water species including two large ocean sunfish and market squid, species which have not been seen in the prior 18 years of sampling, said Joe Orsi of the AFSC’s Auke Bay Laboratories. Other warm-water species reported from Alaska recently include albacore, bonito and yellowtail.

“This El Niño is liable to bring some really strange changes in ocean conditions because the widespread warming of the North Pacific we saw with the blob was so far outside of our experience,” said Northwest Fisheries Science Center oceanographer Bill Peterson. “When you put an El Niño on top of that it is anyone’s guess as to how this will affect marine organisms.” He tracks types of plankton off the Central Oregon Coast for insight into ocean conditions. He expects a new surge of warm-water plankton as the tropical El Niño begins to influence Oregon waters this fall.

Salmon and other species that thrive in cold water often do poorly in warm years, especially strong El Niño years, he noted, while species such as sardines that favor warmer water could do better.

El Nino vs. the blob

Now another key question is how the tropical El Niño and the blob may interact as El Niño gains strength and begins to affect the West Coast this fall and winter. In terms of size, El Niño far exceeds the blob and is expected to pummel the blob with storms that will likely break up the blob and push its warm water up along much of the West Coast, said Nate Mantua, leader of the SWFSC’s Landscape Ecology Team.

That will likely make this the third winter in a row with record-high coastal temperatures that affect both marine ecosystems and the coastal climate. El Niño typically shifts the jet stream in a way that redirects storms from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California instead.

“Because we’re starting from an exceptionally high baseline temperature this could take us further into uncharted territory in terms of effects,” Mantua said.

He said there is potential for the warm coastal temperatures to “supercharge” storms spawned by El Niño. Since warmer air holds more moisture storms may carry greater precipitation ashore, which could lead to more intense deluges on land. That could multiply the impacts of this summer’s large wildfires by pouring water on recently burned slopes.

“If you put heavy rains on that, you can get mudslides, debris flows, rapid runoff and other serious impacts,” Mantua said.

California sea lions will likely continue to struggle as the warm water temperatures lead to shifts in prey, he said. Record numbers of starving sea lion pups stranded on Southern California beaches last winter and spring as their mothers had a harder time finding food near their rookeries in the Channel Islands.

Investigations of the sea lion strandings by AFSC researcher Sharon Melin and others found that adult females could not maintain enough lactation to support normal pup growth. In July 2015 AFSC biologists recorded declines in the number of sea lion pups born on San Miguel and San Nicholas islands, another sign of nutritional stress in the population.

Mantua noted that El Niño effects extend far beyond the West Coast of North America. Dry conditions in Central America have already led to restrictions on the size of ships that can transit the Panama Canal because of lack of water, for instance. Meanwhile heavy rains are falling in the Peruvian desert.

“This El Niño will likely cause extreme climate events in different parts of the world for the next six to nine months,” Mantua said.

How science tracks conditions

The way that El Niño interacts with the warm blob may depend on the depth and extent of the blob’s warm water, which remains something of a mystery, said Toby Garfield, director of the SWFSC’s Environmental Research Division. If it’s shallow, it should dissipate quickly. But if it’s deeper, the larger volume of water may hang on longer.

“How much heat does it hold and how that volume of hot water out there may or may not change things, those are the questions everyone’s asking right now,” Garfield said. “This is going to be a very interesting winter coming up and many scientists and communities will be working hard to anticipate and prepare for changes in the ocean and atmosphere.”

Marine scientist are mobilizing partnerships to make the most of ocean monitoring instruments along the West Coast. New instruments such as autonomous gliders that survey ocean conditions may offer opportunities to gather marine data that was not available during previous El Niños, Garfield said.

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