Here on Catalina our island is affected by a cyclical climate pattern known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Within ENSO three different climate events can occur – El Nino, a Neutral state, or La Nina. Typically these different climate events within the ENSO switch back and forth every 3 to 7 years.
For the past year Catalina has been undergoing the effects of El Nino. Rather than having our normal cold water, El Nino has brought warmer than average ocean temperatures to the Pacific. This warmer water has negatively impacted our kelp forest environment as well as all the animals that depend on it due to the rising ocean temperature. They cannot withstand these warmer temperatures.
However El Nino also brought more rain to our island. This was extremely beneficial all throughout California since we have been in a pretty detrimental drought these past couple of years. With this rain more plants, especially wildflowers, were brought back to life all throughout Catalina.
Recently, we have been seeing a shift from El Nino towards La Nina. But what is La Nina and how is it going to impact us on Catalina Island?
La Nina is typically the positive phase of the ENSO because it is associated with colder than average ocean temperatures. These colder temperatures are extremely beneficial to our Pacific ocean environment – especially for our kelp!
However not all of La Nina will be positive impacts of our island. La Nina will also bring drier land conditions to Southern California. And these dry conditions will not be beneficial to Southern California or Catalina due to our current drought status.
At the end of the day El Nino means good for land, bad for ocean while La Nina means good for ocean, bad for land.
1997-1998: the dawn of Girlpower, Harry’s first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the epic story between love, an iceberg and a ship. Oh, and yeah…..El Niño.
Documented as the strongest El Niño to ever occur within the past 50 years, the 1997-1998 ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) event broke records for heightened sea surface temperatures, rainfall, and drought conditions globally. With ENSO occurring regularly every 4-5 years there’s no lack of expectation of what’s to naturally happen. It is, although, varied by intensity. 2015 marks the beginning of another El Niño event, and this year is anticipated to steal the cake. Recent trends give evidence to the possibility that this year could reach and even surpass 1997-1998 records with how high sea surface temperatures of the water have been.
This natural, cyclical phenomenon transpires when easterly trade winds along the equator weaken, shifting atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns. Normally, cold-nutrient rich water is upwelled along the eastern Pacific coast near Peru due to strong trades pushing west. This keeps the areas around the eastern portion of the equator relatively cool and dry during portions of the year, and highly productive given the movement of bottom-dwelling nutrients to the surface. Along the western side, the warm water being pushed by the strong winds eventually warms the overlying air over Indonesia and other portions of Southeast Asia. The air then gets lifted into the atmosphere and produces variable stormy activity that keeps this area relatively warm and wet during the year.
What commences an El Niño event is the weakening of the easterly trade winds. The normal cold-water upwelling occurring along the eastern Pacific coast that we typically see comes to a halt, allowing warm water to pool up. Atmospheric weather patterns shift more eastward, producing more wet, stormy conditions along the eastern coastlines. As a result, we find more warm, wet, and non-productive conditions along the east side and more warm and dry conditions over towards the west.
The intensity of ENSO events varies each year based upon the overlay of building oceanic and atmospheric conditions throughout the designated year. Only time will tell on how strong this year’s El Niño will be. What is anticipated to happen around California and Catalina Island, although, is higher than normal precipitation in the form of rain and even snow up in higher elevated areas, increased susceptibility of weather-induced natur al disaster events, including landslides and mudslides, and major ecological shifts within our local terrestrial and marine environments. We’ve already seen a number of non-native marine critters visit, including the recently sighted venomous Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake…..watch out!
The important thing to understand is that El Niño is a natural reoccurring phenomenon. It’s not alien that we are going to experience an intense shift in climate and weather patterns this winter seasons or quite possibly even see Godzilla emerging from the sea. What is curious, although, is the question of how intense that shift will be and how our ever changing world has contributed to that intensity.
Anticipated as the most intense El Niño since 1997, this winter is forecasted to be cold, immensely wet, and mushy along the southwest coast, including Catalina.
So what exactly is an El Niño?
El Niño, or more formally called ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), is a climatological phenomenon that naturally occurs every few years, altering climate patterns globally. Atmospheric and oceanic circulations become disrupted as easterly trade winds along the equatorial pacific weaken. As a result, upwelling off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru diminish leading to an inc
rease in sea surface temperature and rainfall around the eastern Pacific, and more drought conditions along the western side. During a normal non-El Niño year, the opposite occurs. Trade winds are strong, cold, nutrient-rich water from the ocean floor upwells along the eastern equatorial pacific, productivity is high, and conditions are relatively more dry.
What does this mean for the southwest and Catalina?
With an El Niño, California and the majority of the southwest typically experience cooler temperatures and more stormy conditions. Since this year has been overwhelmingly dry, the forecast for large quantities of rainfall will provide some relief towards the current drought situation.
Well if it’s not actually Godzilla, then why are we concerned?
As this years El Niño is anticipated to be the strongest on record, in conjunction with California’s current drought situation, the excessive quantity of rain is feared to cause a reaction of natural disaster events bringing devastation to the land and its surrounding environments. Increased susceptibility of flooding, along with land- and mudslides are expected, posing concerns of heightened structural damage, losses in property, and alterations within terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Looking into the life aquatic, higher than average water temperatures are, and will continue to chase away some of our natural residents and attract more of a warm-water-thriving variety of species.
As fall beings to age and winter quickly approaches, batten down the hatches, grab what you can, and run for the hills Southern California! Godzilla is coming!…. Or maybe call the Justice League???
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