May 27, 2016

Story: Experts gather at an El Nino workshop

The 2015-2016 El Niño event was one of the strongest on record, causing a number of unusual—and some catastrophic—events, from severe rainstorms in Southern California, to thousands of dead animals washing ashore in Chile due to harmful algae. Species such as pelagic red crabs and tuna have been observed much farther north than in typical years as they follow warm water currents up the North American coast.

In light of this extraordinary El Niño season, CalCOFI and the Center for Ocean Solutions co-hosted a science workshop to discuss its potential impacts on the California Current region and the wider Pacific ecosystem. Over 70 ocean scientists and managers gathered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California on December 16, 2015. Participants exchanged knowledge and perspectives and identified key research gaps and management needs integral to understanding how El Niño events impact the Pacific region.

Ashley Erickson takes notes from group discussion.

Capitalizing on a diverse range of participant expertise, including oceanography, climate modeling, fisheries management and ocean law and policy, the workshop helped generate a broad, interdisciplinary understanding of the current state of the science surrounding El Niño and its ocean impacts. Participants discussed some of the primary barriers to better characterizing the phenomenon (including financial and technological constraints) and ways to overcome these barriers through improved institutional collaboration and data sharing.

In a series of presentations, researchers described forecasting El Niño as challenging because other oceanographic and climate events – such as the recent “warm blob” – often confound climate patterns.

A map of the Pacific Ocean from November of 2015. The red indicates higher temperatures. Photo: NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab. 

As Francisco Chavez of MBARI put it, “No two El Niños are alike.”

Workshop participants discussed ways to strategically mobilize research efforts to better prepare for future El Niño events (e.g., by clarifying priorities for data collection, synthesis and securing funding quickly). They also cited the need to improve understanding of management needs under El Niño conditions and to improve trans-boundary knowledge sharing and collaboration, for example between the U.S. and Mexico.

Full group discussions as well as smaller breakout sessions, facilitated in part by COS staff Ashley Erickson and Larry Crowder, allowed for diverse sharing of ideas. Topics discussed throughout the day ranged from the physical and oceanographic impact of El Niño events to resulting changes in fisheries, harmful algal blooms and the health of coastal habitats.

COS and CalCOFI are drafting a summary report highlighting the key ideas and outcomes generated by participants. This work will serve as a “time marker” of the state of the science in December of the 2015-2016 El Niño year. The hope is that the workshop discussions will catalyze future research collaborations by elucidating some of the key scientific and management priorities related to El Niño impacts in the Pacific region in order to manage the resilience of both natural and human systems in the face of future climate anomalies.