Future El Niño
El Niño is earth’s most powerful climate cycle, influencing weather and affecting crops, water supplies and public health globally. What may be the strongest El Niño ever measured is now getting underway, and is already affecting parts of the world.
Many leading El Niño authorities are at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. They include scientists who helped form the modern understanding of El Niño; who make the official U.S. monthly global and regional El Niño forecasts; who study the deep history and future of El Niño; and who are working across the world to help nations take practical measures to cope with El Niño-related weather.
Below, a guide to people and resources at our International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and other centers. NOTE: In conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization and others, IRI will host a Nov. 17-18 El Niño international conference in Palisades, N.Y. Press wishing to attend, please contact Francesco Fiondella. Parts of the event will be livestreamed.
Tony Barnston is IRI’s chief forecaster, responsible for monthly and seasonal El Niño forecasts in concert with the U.S. government and World Meteorological Organization.
Simon Mason is chief climate scientist, working globally with governments to apply IRI’s forecasts to practical issues including preparation for natural disasters.
Andrew Robertson is head of IRI’s Climate Group, and studies regional climate variability, predictability and change, at both short and long timescales.
Lisa Goddard is director-general of the IRI, working on a broad variety of El Niño-related issues.
Madeleine Thomson studies health effects of El Niño and other climate cycles, and advises governments how to deal with them.
Richard Seager is a climate modeler who studies how El Niño and other cycles affect rainfall, and how cycles may shift as the world warms, especially in the U.S. West.
Adam Sobel is an atmospheric scientist specializing in extreme weather, and can address how El Niño might affect the United States, especially in the East.
Suzana Camargo is a climate modeler who studies how El Niño influences cyclones and other violent weather worldwide.
Mark Cane is an oceanographer who co-designed the first model to successfully predict El Niño, in the 1990s; also, coauthor of research linking warfare with El Niño.
Xiaojun Yuan is a polar scientist who studies land-sea-ice interactions, particularly in relation to El Niño and related climate cycles that connect the poles with the mid-latitudes.
Marc Levy is a political scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, which studies interactions between people and natural systems.
- El Niño comes every 2-7 years. Winds over the tropical Pacific Ocean abate, and the sea surface warms. The current cycle started this spring, and will probably peak this winter before subsiding in spring 2016. It will likely rank among the top events ever recorded.
- El Niño dramatically reshapes precipitation and temperature over much of Asia, the Americas and Africa. Effects vary by region.
- Indonesia is already suffering giant wildfires and resulting deadly haze due to El Niño-related dry weather.
- El Niño may bring needed rain to the U.S. West, but also torrential rains and mudslides. Areas of the U.S. East may see an unusually warm winter. Parts of Asia, South America and Africa could become drier, compromising food production. Weather shifts in eastern Africa could bring disease outbreaks.
- A recent Earth Institute study suggests that civil wars are more likely to start or worsen during the disruptive weather of El Niño.
- Mainly due to human carbon emissions, 2015 will probably be the warmest year ever recorded; El Niño will add even more heat in 2015 and 2016.
By Allison Jacobel
In the seafaring lore of yore at least two statements have traditionally been held as fact: the more rum the more merry the mates and any and all women are bad luck. While the origin of the first statement is fairly obvious, the second may require a bit of explanation. In the times of ancient mariners it was held that not only were women incapable of doing physical work aboard a ship but also that they were a distraction to the men onboard. Together these two factors were thought to produce a dangerous inattention to the sea which could anger the forces of nature and cause fearful storms and gales.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately depending on how you feel about the first statement), we here on the Marcus G. Langseth are bucking the shackles of yore in the most dramatic of fashions. On this cruise not only do we have women aboard but all ten of the graduate students and our post-doc are female!
Aboard the Langseth are:
Sam Bova – Brown U., Ann Dunlea – Boston U., Heather Ford- U. of California, Jen Hertzberg- Texas A&M, Allison Jacobel – Columbia U., Christina King – U. of Rhode Island. Ashley Maloney – U. of Washington, Julia Shackford- Texas A&M, Kate Wejnert– Georgia Tech, Ruifeng Xie – Texas A&M.
While over the past 20 years, women have increasingly demonstrated their ability to compete in many sectors of the workforce, a slower trend has been observed in the geosciences than in any other STEM discipline except engineering. In 2004, 42% of the BA and BS degrees awarded in the geosciences were to women and only 34% of the PhDs awarded in the geosciences were to women. Most troubling is that of full professors in US geosciences departments only 8% are women.
It will likely take more than one generation to overcome these trends, but many of us aboard the Langseth are optimistic. While the driving forces and support networks behind the women on board are unique, several commonalities can be found.
I think most in the field would agree when I say we’re a well-awarded group and here I think credit is due to both government programs and private foundations for recognizing the need and opportunity to support young women in science. While some might point to the demographics on board as a reason that the emphasis on supporting women in science is no longer needed, I think the scarcity of female professors in tenured positions at most universities is a clear argument that this emphasis should continue.
We also owe thanks to the pioneering female scientists who were instrumental in deconstructing many of the biases against women in science and who paved the way for our generation’s steps forward. For example we are fortunate enough to be led in our scientific mission by Jean Lynch-Stieglitz, one of our two chief scientists. Jean was the first female professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and holds amongst many accomplishments the 2000 receipt of a NSF CAREER Award in recognition of her role as an outstanding leader in both education and research. Jean is currently a professor at Georgia Tech and last but certainly not least, mother of two.
Finally, I think some credit is due to the male scientists on board (and those PI’s back on land) who helped to bring us each aboard and who recognized our skills, drive and potential among a field of qualified candidates. These men are neither intimidated by, nor resentful towards, the smart women aboard and have invested their time and academic resources into helping us all to become better scientists.
While the prevalence and acceptance of women in the geosciences is growing, we are also aware of the professional gaps left to be bridged, both in our own field and others. I don’t take the opportunities I’ve been given for granted and believe I speak for the other women aboard when I say we hope to encourage other young women to pursue their interests in the sciences and other traditionally male-dominated fields. Through participation in professional societies, activities involving disadvantaged girls in schools, summer programs and more, we hope to make waves not only in the seas of the South Pacific but also in in the communities we call home.
For more information about women in the geosciences check out the NSF/AWG sponsored workshop proceeding “Where are the Women Geoscience Professors?”
Allison Jacobel is a graduate student at Columbia University who studies the past circulation of the ocean and atmosphere using the chemistry of deep ocean sediments. I should not neglect to mention that we are fortunate to have one male undergraduate on board, Victor Castro, who is a much-appreciated member of the scientific party.
 Holmes, M.A., O’Connell, S., Frey, C. & Ongley, L. Gender imbalance in US geoscience academia. Nature Geoscience 1, 148–148 (2008).
We have been steaming and searching for locations on the seafloor where the sediments are accumulating undisturbed. We tried without luck to take cores at several promising locations, however the cores came up less than perfect. It turns out that much of the undersea portion of the Line Islands has ocean currents that remove and erode sediment. This erosion shows up in the sediment cores as sandy layers where the very small grains of sediment have been swept away. So, we kept up our vigil in the main lab area, closely monitoring the seafloor for small pockets of sediment that looked promising. Some pockets are only a few tenths of a mile across while others are a mile or two. Many that look beautiful from a distance turn out to be ugly on closer inspection.
On our 13th core attempt of the cruise, we got lucky. The corer came back full of the beautiful, white mud. The 20-foot core contains over 250,000 years of sediment and spans the last three glacial cycles in earth’s history. During each of these cycles the earth cooled and large ice sheets expanded over North America and elsewhere. In our core, these cycles are indicated by color changes from greenish brown to white and back.
After lucky 13, we began to hone our strategy and are finding more locations with good sediments. We now have lucky 15, 17, and many more; we now have over 30 cores and counting. Not all of them are perfect, but we are getting better at finding good sediments and faster at coring them.
By Lee Dortzbach,
I work as the Chief Mate aboard the Research Vessel Marcus G. Langseth for this cruise and stand the 4 to 8 watch. Every morning as I get the ship where the scientists need to be, I watch for the sun to rise. Every evening I watch for it to set. There are some days when clouds are around and make for some great sunsets. Other days we cannot see the sun through all the clouds.
Sunday night after successfully recovering a gravity core about 42 miles north of the equator, conditions were right for a rare treat – the green flash. There were clear skies around the Sun, good visibility and a clear horizon. When I first heard about the green flash, I thought it was something that was noticeable and quick. Over the last decade, I have seen that it is not a sky-covering flash (as depicted in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), but a short lived change of the sun’s light as it sets.
It happens because of refraction of light through the Earth’s atmosphere. The white light of the sun is broken into different wavelengths of visible light we recognize as different colors. The red and orange cover most of the sky, the yellow of the sun gets more orange-like as the sun sets and the blue and violet get scattered too much for us to see.
So what about the green? It too is scattered most of the time until the tip of the Sun is barely visible above the horizon. The Sun’s yellow light is refracted more and so the ‘yellow’ sun sets below the horizon before the ‘green’ sun. The sliver of green becomes visible to our eyes only when the bright yellow light is fading during the sunset. It starts from the bottom up in a horizontal band that grows a little taller as the sun sets. On a few occasions I have seen a sliver of blue/violet light below the green (a challenge against a blue ocean and a greater treat). In the latitude of the United States, it lasts about 0.7 seconds. Sometimes it can last up to 4 seconds. Ours lasted between 1 and 2 seconds. Definitely a flash compared to the core we just recovered!
For more information and other pictures of green flashes, click here.
Lee Dortzbach graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with a B.S. in Marine Transportation in 2000. He has been around the world on several different ships over the last decade, including two oceanographic research vessels. He lives in landlocked Utah.
Yesterday we left our first study region with new samples from the seafloor and a healthy respect for the ocean currents that can erode sediment deep in the ocean. The samples will be useful for our research but we had to work for them. The seafloor we surveyed was heavily eroded and we had to look carefully before finding sites that were promising enough to sample. Even then we ran into difficulties getting the sediments back to the ship.
We spent several days surveying the seafloor using instruments on the ship to identify possible sites for sampling. We looked for flat areas where we could see layers of sediment below the seafloor. These layers show up in the echoes from sound pulses in a type of measurement called seismic reflection (see previous blog post). Unfortunately much of the region we surveyed has deep gullies with no sediment layers. Ocean currents have scoured these regions leaving no sediment for us to core. We finally located several small areas that had a hint of sediments and one big pile of sediment we thought would be our best chance for samples.
We use a sediment corer to take samples of the seafloor. The corer is a long tube with heavy weights on top that push the tube down into the seafloor. When the tube is pulled out it removes a long cylinder of sediment that we bring back to the surface. The corer is lowered on a steel cable at about 1.5 miles per hour and takes more than an hour to reach the seafloor. At 150 feet above the seafloor, a mechanical trigger releases the corer from the cable and 5,000 pounds of steel rocket towards the bottom. The weight and speed push the corer up to 30 feet into the sediments. Then we have to pull the corer back out. Sometimes this is easy but if the sediments stick to the corer it can take almost 20,000 pounds of pull to free the tube and slide it out.
The other important step in coring is to keep the sediments inside the tube on their two-mile trip back to the surface. This seems obvious but we ran into troubles with the very first core we took. Usually a ring of metal fingers in the bottom of the core (called a core catcher) keeps the sediment inside the tube. However, the sediment we were coring contained a lot of sand-sized shells that was washing out of the tube leaving us with no sediment by the time the corer reached the surface. To prevent this, we added a sock of fabric around the core catcher to keep the sand from washing out. Bingo! The fabric kept the sand in the corer and we started recovering sediments to study.
When the sediment corer arrives at the ocean surface it is laid horizontally along the ship’s rail where we take a sample of the sediment in the core catcher to determine the age of the bottom of the core. This age is determined by looking for a striking, pink colored shell made by a type of plankton called foraminifera. This pink foraminifera was abundant in the Pacific Ocean until 120,000 years ago, so if we find pink shells we know the sediments are at least 120,000 years old. We will do more detailed analyses later but this age gives us our first peek at how much time it took for the sediments to accumulate.
Next, we cut the core into smaller sections that are easier to handle and the core is split open so we can see how the sediment looks. We study its color, texture and composition before storing it in a refrigerated container aboard the ship. At the end of the cruise we will send the container to the Deep-Sea Core Repository at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory where the sediments will be preserved for researchers around the world to study.
We are now steaming south to the equator to start a new survey to find the right locations to drill more sediment cores.
We are in the fifth day of our research cruise to the Line Islands and shipboard life is beginning to settle into a routine. Most people have their ‘sea legs’ and our sleep schedules are adjusting to the midnight to noon or noon to midnight work shifts. Meals are a time to catch up with scientist and crew, and the motivated scientists have begun regular exercise schedules in the ship’s gym.
As we steam over the incredibly wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the waves seem endless and monotonous, and the wind blows steadily from the same direction for days on end. However, beneath us the seafloor is far from monotonous. Huge mountains rise 10,000 feet above the seafloor and create escarpments, ridges and valleys that would rival the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It is along these mountains that we hope to find sediment for our research.
Using scientific instruments we peer ‘through the looking glass’ to learn what the seafloor and sediments look like. The analogy to the looking glass is apt: Alice stepped through the mirror to see the world beyond and we peer through the bottom of the ocean to see what is below. However, unlike Alice, we use our ears. Short pulses of sound from the ship are focused on the seafloor and we listen to the echo and reverberations that return to the ship. Depending upon the pitch and intensity of the sound we can look at the top layer of the sediment or much deeper.
The most basic echo we listen to comes from the very top of the sediments. This echo travels down through ocean, bounces off the top of the sediments and returns back to the ship. We measure the time it takes to go down and come back up, and knowing how fast sound travels through seawater (~one mile per second or 3,400 miles per hour!) we can determine the distance to the bottom of the ocean. The times are very short, about two seconds for water a mile deep. We use these distances to construct a detailed map of the bottom of the ocean. This map shows the mountains and valleys on the seafloor where we will take our sediment samples. We also listen to how loud the echo is when it comes back to the ship. Hard surfaces like rock have a loud echo while soft sediment gives a quiet echo. This is an additional way to determine where there are ocean sediments to sample.
If we turn up the sound volume and use a lower pitch we can look beyond the seafloor into the sediments below. Now rather than just one echo from the seafloor, we begin to hear many echos as sound reflects off the different layers in the sediments. These echos allow us peer beneath the seafloor to know how thick the sediment is and whether it is nicely layered or jumbled and distorted.
When we find the right sediments—not too deep, smooth, with nice layers—we will take cores of the sediment to study the climate history preserved in the layers.
It is the middle of the night and I am wide awake thinking about the ocean, specifically the bottom of the ocean. Is it rocky? Jumbled? Smooth? I am wondering this because I want to take samples of the seafloor to study. Rocky is bad. Jumbled is bad. Smooth is good.
In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons a woman says, “I don’t know why I don’t care about the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t.” Well, for the next four weeks our research group will care a lot about the bottom of the ocean. We are sailing to the middle of the Pacific Ocean where we hope to collect sediment to study how climate has changed in the past. Our destination is a group of atolls and seamounts collectively known as the Line Islands. They include Kingman Reef (U.S.A.), Palmyra Atoll (U.S.A.) and part of the island nation of Kiribati.
The ocean around the Line Islands is over two and a half miles deep (4 km)—too deep to preserve the climate changes we want to study. So, we are going to take sediment cores on the flanks of the islands where the sediments are better preserved. The flanks are also where a lot can happen to the sediments. Slumps can break off huge chunks of sediment, ocean currents can erode the sediment and slumps from higher up the flank can deposit thick layers of sediment. All of these happenings alter or erase the regular ordering of the sediment (the stratigraphy in geologists terms) and make them unusable for our research. So, I am thinking about the bottom of the ocean.
Our group is sailing on the research vessel (R/V) Marcus G. Langseth, an oceanographic research vessel operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (where I work). The ship is a floating scientific laboratory, with the ability to study and take samples of the ocean water and sediments wherever we go. The scientists on board include seventeen researchers from nine institutions. In addition, there are 34 technicians and sailors who make sure the ship and scientific instruments are functioning properly so we can collect the data we need. The moment we leave the dock in Hawaii will be the culmination of almost a year of planning, a lot of hard work by the crew of the Langseth, and financial support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Our goal for this cruise is to collect cores of deep ocean sediment that we can use to study the past behavior of El Niño as well as the climate of the tropical Pacific Ocean. Although our studies focus on the Pacific Ocean, the results could tell us about many different areas of the globe. El Niño weather affects regions as far apart as Indonesia and New York State. In fact, El Niño events are responsible for the largest year-to-year changes in global weather. Our goal is to learn how El Niño has varied in the past so that we can develop better forecasts for the future of El Niño into the 21st century and beyond.
Over the next four weeks I will be writing a series of articles about our cruise. Topics will include El Niño, life aboard the ship and how we actually collect water and sediment samples from the ocean. Stay tuned!
In the meantime you can track where we are online.