Scripps research projects monitor sea, air

In the past 30 years, the phrase El Niño has become a household term or something close to it. An autumn doesn’t go by that we in the Scripps Communications Office don’t get at least a sprinkling of calls from reporters asking if the year will bring us an El Niño or its flipside, sibling La Niña.

In the entire time that climate scientists have had that name for the rain-bringing climate phenomenon, there have been two super-sized El Niño events, in 1982-83 and 1997-98, with strong impacts that stretched around the globe. On both occasions, it caused millions of dollars of damage to the California coast.

Thanks to a surge of warm ocean surface water in the 1997-98 episode, parts of Northern California experienced sea-level rise of nearly one foot — for the entire season. Throw an intense storm onto an ocean with that added ability to encroach and the result is havoc. If you see archival footage of waves crashing through restaurant windows, it was probably shot during one of those years.

Meanwhile, the onslaught of rain that El Niño brings the West Coast had its counterpoint in east Asia, where Indonesia experienced crippling drought and some of the worst wildfires in its history. There are links between El Niño events, and the oppositely phased La Niña events, and tropical cyclones in Asia and sustained droughts in California that scientists are trying to characterize.

So the phenomenon is nothing to ignore. One official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) likes to point out that roofers in Los Angeles tune in to El Niño forecasts every year because of the dramatic effect the storms can have on their business. With much effort, scientists’ ability to predict the next major blast has achieved a degree of forecast accuracy out to three to six months, but not longer.

It’s not for lack of trying. Shortly after the 1982-83 event, the foundation for a new observational network was laid. The Tropical Ocean Atmosphere (TAO) project includes a network of about 70 moored buoys in the Pacific Ocean that radiate north and south from the equator.

The data they provide, including surface and subsurface ocean temperature, salinity and velocity plus marine meteorological observations, track the movement of the warm pool of surface water that can set up El Niño conditions when it migrates to the central or eastern side of the Pacific basin.

El Niño is a coupled air-sea phenomenon, so it is important to track its progression in both the ocean and the atmosphere. Since 2000, TAO has been a joint project of the United States through NOAA and Japan.

The problem now is that the TAO array is failing because of various funding shortfalls, taking with it the possibility of not being able to predict the next El Niño episode. Funds to maintain the buoys and operate the vessels that service the 70 buoys were reduced in 2012 and there was little servicing in 2013. Many of the buoys have stopped delivering data as they fall into disrepair.

NOAA has announced that it will be able to service many of the buoys and expects most to be reporting by the end of 2014; however, prospects for continued servicing remain unclear.

Funding for long-term observing systems has always been problematic, and is especially so in the present era of austerity and reductions across the board in research. It’s a problem that has plagued Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s iconic Keeling Curve for most of its 55-year history.

For more than 60 years, the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) program at Scripps has been collecting data off California that has incalculable value to those who depend on marine life to make a living, but it too has struggled with federal and state funding caprices.

The irony is that science has become remarkably adept at making the planet something that can be continually monitored. In almost every arena of ocean, earth and atmospheric science, there are new instruments, ranging from gliders to floats to satellite systems, all with a capacity to make vital measurements in real-time or near-real time. They just need guaranteed funding to pay for maintenance.

Some of the world’s leading El Niño researchers recently converged at Scripps to talk about how to evolve the TAO array into a more modern and more capable system for observing the tropical Pacific ocean/atmosphere variability. The workshop kicked off the research and planning needed for the future Tropical Pacific Ocean Observing System (TPOS) to provide critical data by 2020.

The concern of several Pacific Rim nations — Peru, Ecuador, Indonesia, Fiji and Australia were among those represented — was the loss of data, and other countries besides the U.S. and Japan plan to participate in the modernized TPOS. The Korean Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) has plans to operate a significant component of TPOS, an assertion of South Korea’s goal to become a major player in ocean research.

But the workshop also recognized new technologies that didn’t exist when TAO began, many of which were developed here in San Diego at Scripps. For instance, Scripps is adding 48 profiling floats to the global arsenal of the NOAA-funded Argo network to supplement missing TAO moorings. A vessel left Jan. 2 from San Diego to deploy them along the full length of the Pacific equator.

These floats measure temperature and salinity from the sea surface to 2,000 meters deep, and are dispersed throughout the world’s oceans to create a comprehensive view of ocean conditions that was impossible before 2000.

Along the equator they provide a more focused view of ocean variability than the small number of TAO moorings, and they extend this view to a much greater depth. And while moorings must be serviced every year, the floats will keep going for five years.

Another recent Scripps creation, the Spray glider, will be deployed along transects that follow the path of one line of TAO buoys. Other research organizations are also chipping in technology to avoid gaps in El Niño data caused by TAO’s demise. The TPOS of 2020 will likely include moorings, but these too will be new designs with longer life, and in balance with other elements of the modernized observing system.

It shouldn’t take the occasional blast of nature for us to remain aware of it. The next El Niño may not come this year or next, but come it surely will. Legislators and funding officials in this country could help by taking a long view when considering support for this vital network.

The monetary investment that support requires is minuscule in the grand scheme of federal expenditures. The value it provides to the United States economy and to public safety is vast and accrues as the data it produces become richer and more meaningful with time.

Robert Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations now online magazine.

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