Scripps Science Responds to El Niño

Across a wide range of disciplines, Scripps researchers are observing this year’s historic event in greater detail than ever before

The 2015-2016 El Niño is one of the strongest on record and already influencing weather and climate across the country.  Scientists at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography play a prominent role in predicting the onset of El Niños and are engaged in research to understand how the event is impacting Californians and their environment. 

Most past strong El Niño events have steered powerful winter storms towards California, with episodes of severe coastal flooding, erosion, and associated impacts to coastal communities and infrastructure.  El Niño also directly affects marine ecosystems, driving changes in food webs and distribution of important marine species.  With funding and support from a variety of federal and state agencies, Scripps is engaged in research to understand all aspects of this major event and develop the knowledge needed to best predict and prepare for the future:

High-Resolution Southern California Coast Surveys

Scripps is conducting a series of scanning high-resolution laser ranging lidar, and photographic surveys from September 2015 to February 2016 from the US-Mexico border to northern Santa Monica Bay and Naval Station Ventura.  Individual sites are monitored using high-resolution GPS surveys and photographs.  At some beaches and estuaries, pressure sensor wave runup,overtopping, and groundwater measurements are collected.  In addition, several estuaries include sensors to measure physical and ecosystem response including circulation, salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen.  The primary goal is to provide precise measurements of the coast to quantify beach, estuary, and cliff erosion, flooding and other damage such as breakwater or road damage caused by winter storms during the current El Niño event.  Of particular concern is the impact of storms on beaches and adjacent civilian and military installations affected by previous strong El Niño events. The work is supported by Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Boating and Waterways, USC Sea Grant, FEMA, and California Sea Grant.

Drone Observations of Storm Impacts to Navy Bases

Scripps scientists, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are studying the impact of El Niño-related winter storms on naval installations.  Scientists will use drones to study how energetic El Niño conditions affect berms and beaches protecting Naval Base Coronado and the Naval Amphibious Base in San Diego.  These studies will also serve as a proxy for understanding potential impacts of sea-level rise on these important naval installations.  The research is supported by the Navy, California Department of Boating and Waterways, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Understanding El Niño Impacts on Atmospheric Rivers and Potential to Improve Weather Forecasting

NOAA is focusing additional winter flight observations that target atmospheric rivers over the Pacific Ocean to improve prediction of heavy precipitation on the U.S. West Coast.  Scientists will guide two C-130 aircraft that are part of the U.S. Air Force Weather Reconnaissance Squadron to observe three winter storms this month.  They will conduct four atmospheric river crossings for each storm and will measure the detailed position and structure of the atmospheric rivers offshore. 

Data will be provided in real time for assimilation into operational weather prediction centers to help predict and understand impacts on precipitation, flooding, high winds, waves and coastal erosion.  Studies have shown that errors in the prediction of the landfall of this type of storm in preceding days originate mostly from errors in the initial position and structure of the atmospheric river offshore.  The targeting is provided by atmospheric river experts from Scripps’ Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (cw3e.ucsd.edu) in support of NOAA’s operational reconnaissance tasking and will provide data for use in research studies to further optimize targeted weather observations to enhance west coast storm predictions.

Improving Regional Flooding Indexes and Warnings

The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (sccoos.org) at Scripps has worked closely with Southern California communities to increase awareness and understanding of the threats of coastal flooding during this El Niño.  The Coastal Data Information Program (cdip.ucsd.edu) has developed a Potential Flooding Index, accounting for wave height, wave period and tides to forecast local coastal flooding events.  Ongoing monitoring of shoreline changes, tides and surf conditions, including input from the public on local flooding events, will improve future flood predictions.  The work is supported by the California Department of Boating and Waterways, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and NOAA.

Citizen Scientists Aid Planners, Researchers, and Communities by Documenting Beach Erosion and Coastal Flooding

Coastal monitoring, including a community-based observing program, is essential for informing how society adapts to rising seas.   CDIP and SCCOOS are collaborating on a citizen science project that will incorporate geo-tagged photos of storm waves or coastal damage.  These photos will be used to calibrate the flooding thresholds indicated on CDIP’s three-day flooding index available online. 

Photos are sent to stormphoto.org where they will be ingested and included in a database of coastal photos.  These will be posted on line, geo-referenced to a regional map and storm events correlated.

El Niño Impacts to Living Marine Resources

The California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (calcofi.org) program has been studying marine ecosystems off California since 1949.  By undertaking regular ecosystem data collection over a long period of time, CalCOFI data allow scientists to assess how fisheries and other aspects of the ecosystem respond to El Niño.  The winter CalCOFI data collection completed at the end of January included observations of anchovy and sardine spawning, and marine mammal and sea bird counts.  Initial data show an abundance of red crabs offshore, a typical sign of ecosystem response to El Niño. The research is supported by NOAA, and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Understanding How El Niño Affects the California Coastal Ecosystem

The National Science Foundation, through the Rapid Response Research program (RAPID), funded Scripps scientists to study the effects of El Niño on key processes that control the structure of the food web and control rates of elemental cycling in the California Current ecosystem.  The science team was provided 25 days of ship time in April-May 2016, when the impacts of this winter’s El Niño will exert major influences on the ecosystem.


El Niño and The Importance of Sustained Ocean Observations



With funding from NOAA, in early 2014, Scripps scientists deployed 41 Argo (argo.ucsd.edu) floats in the Pacific Ocean along the equator..  Ongoing Argo coverage was doubled there in order to describe in detail the evolution of El Niño episodes. Argo data revealed that a sequence of deep ocean waves known as Kelvin waves in 2015 amplified the basin-wide warm anomaly seen at the beginning of the year to cause the very warm conditions from October to December.  Improvements to the sustained ocean observing system in the tropical Pacific, including enhanced Argo coverage, and to seasonal forecast models, are contributing to better descriptions and forecasts of El Niño and its worldwide impacts.

Extreme Sea Levels Observed at Tide Gauges Along the California Coast

Scientists at Scripps, through the California-Nevada Applications Program program (cnap.ucsd.edu), are investigating high water-level events along the California coast and how they are affected by El Niño and other climate and weather patterns. This study makes use of hourly observations from long-term historical tide gauge records along the California coast.  Early findings show that the majority of high absolute and anomalous sea level events occur during El Niño years. NOAA and the California Department of Water Resources support the research.

Ocean Temperature Off California Measured by Spray Underwater Gliders

The ongoing El Niño is having a profound effect on the Southern California ocean, with water becoming much warmer than normal.  In fact, this unusual warming began over a year ago, when most of the North Pacific Ocean heated up as far north as the Gulf of Alaska.  Since 2006, Scripps researchers have used robotic Spray underwater gliders (spray.ucsd.edu) with support from NOAA for sustained observations on three lines off the California coast at Dana Point, Point Conception, and Monterey Bay.  The observations off Dana Point are used to create the SoCal Temperature Index, a measure of temperature anomaly at 50 meters’ depth off the Southern California coast.  This index shows a remarkable warming period peaking in January 2015, and a more recent increase associated with the current El Niño.

Continuous Moored Observations of Ocean Physical, Chemical, and Biological Responses to El Niño

NOAA is supporting a continuous moored observation program by Scripps and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service scientists to measure ocean conditions in two different regions of the Southern California Current System.  Measurements include ocean temperature, salinity, and currents; dissolved nutrients; plankton populations; sonar-based estimates of fish populations; and measures of ocean acidity and corrosiveness to shelled organisms.  The data are publicly available in real time.  



Related Image Gallery: Scripps Science Responds to El Niño


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