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San Clemente Journal

El Niño Global Warming or Natural Phenomenon?

Feb 25, 2016 09:19AM ● By Donia Moore

Sea surface temperature December 2015

by Donia Moore

No matter where you stand on global warming, there’s no doubt that El Niño has officially made its mark this year. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe it will be the most powerful El Niño to warm our waters since records were first kept 144 years ago. Very unusual weather we’ve seen across the world this year includes: 70 degrees in New York City on Christmas Day; lack of rain in Southern California; abnormally dry weather in Brazil and Indonesia; and high precipitation in Africa causing increases in malaria and dengue fever.  
According to our Ocean Institute marine scientist community in next-door Dana Point, El Niño’s warm water current starts in the Pacific Ocean at the Equator. It swiftly moves to every corner of the global oceans, visible on every weather radar in every country in the world. It affects trade winds, snowfall, precipitation, heat and cold everywhere. Although it happens approximately every four to seven years, this year’s El Niño is expected to be one of the three strongest since the 1950s. 
El Niño means the little boy, or Christ Child in Spanish. It was originally recognized by fishermen off the coast of South America in the 1600s, with the appearance of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean. The name was chosen based on the time of year (around December) during which these warm water events tended to occur.
The most obvious change occurring with El Niño is the rising temperature of the current welling up from Mexico, working its way across the globe, and causing weather changes in every region. Scientists say that this year’s El Niño may cause the oceans, especially the Pacific, to warm as much as 10 degrees above normal. While global warming is credited with increasing temperatures by two to three degrees, the effects of El Niño will be much more dramatic. Added together, the temperature increase means that the world’s oceans are facing enormous changes. An unusual addition to this year’s El Niño is a never-before-seen phenomenon called, simply, “The Blob.” This 1,000 mile pocket of warm water off California’s coast is not a current and does not shift position, as nearly as scientists can tell. It seems to be stationery but the water temperature is definitely increasing. Scientists do not know where it came from and why it is not moving with the current.
“One of the most dramatic changes we’ve seen locally is a decrease in feeder fish,” says Leslie Kretschmar, Director, At Sea Programs for the Ocean Institute. “Because of the increasingly warmer ocean temperatures, these fish are diving deeper and swimming out further into the ocean to find cooler water. This affects our local sea lion population. We are losing many of this year’s pups because their mothers have to go so far out into the ocean for food that they often don’t make it back, and the pups ultimately starve. On the other hand, we are seeing an enormous increase in warm water fish relocating into our waters from Mexico. Fisherman no longer have to go to Mexico to catch tropical blue fin tuna and El Dorado, since these fish are moving into our area.” Other unusual visitors to California shores include swarms of hundreds of thousands of red tuna crabs, green sea turtles, whale sharks and hammerhead sharks.
Too Much Food?
Another recent result of El Niño is a massive over-abundance of algal bloom, producing   domoic acid, a neurotoxin made worse by warm waters and lethal to sea animals ingesting it in food sources. In 2015, over 3,000 sea lions and fur seals, and thousands of sea birds perished and washed up on California beaches, possibly unsuspecting victims of a food chain spiked with the toxin. 
In 2010, a group of marine scientists reported that phytoplankton, or algae, had declined globally. Since phytoplankton provides the base of the marine food chain, this finding was greeted with concern. Not all scientists were in agreement. The Ocean Institute became involved in a study launched in 2013 to try to determine the abundance of this important food source. The aim of the study is to build a map of the oceans that charts the seasonal and annual changes of the phytoplankton from now through the future, regardless of geographic boundaries in the sea. To monitor phytoplankton distribution, the Ocean Institute deploys 120 micron horizontal plankton tows twice a month. After each sample is gathered, data including time, date, longitude, latitude, water temperature and salinity, along with a sample bottle of plankton are sent to the California Department of Public Health for analysis for monitoring marine biotoxins affecting our area’s shellfish.
Learning More
San Clemente residents are naturally interested in the local effects of El Niño. The Journal will hold an ongoing dialogue with the Ocean Institute (O.I.) as we learn more about this phenomenon. Scientists are studying our local waters, and are actively working with state and federal scientists in citizen science programs to monitor oceanic and coastal changes. Citizen science consists of scientific research programs conducted by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Through its Public Programs, the Ocean Institute offers public participation opportunities that introduce the public to the  collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers. More information is available on their website:
In addition to focusing on the results of El Niño, scientists at the Ocean Institute record daily wildlife sightings. Anything out of the ordinary is reported to the Audubon Society (for birds) and the Cascadia Research Collective (for cetaceans such as whales and dolphins). 2015 was a banner year for whale sightings, including the usual Grays, Pilot whales, Humpbacks, Blues, Minkes, Fin and more.  
While weather predictions can only go about 10 days out, many in the surf industry are expecting monster swells. During the last El Niño, surfers claimed to be “hangin’ ten” on 70 ft. waves. Surfin’ Safari, anyone?