Wednesday, March 10, 2010


2010 El Nino Reduces Marine Life

The ongoing El Niño of 2010 is reducing marine populations according to scientists at NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Researchers are reporting a stronger than normal northward movement of warm water up the Southern California coast, a high sea-level event in January and low abundances of plankton and pelagic fish - all conditions consistent El Niño.

Sea surface temperatures along the entire West Coast of America are 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius (0.9 to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal and at points off Southern California are as much as 1.6 degrees Celsius (2.9 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal. The most unusually high temperatures were mapped around Catalina and San Clemente islands.

The high coastal sea levels may be caused by strong winter storms, scientists are investigating whether this is the case or whether they are primarily a result of El Niño.

A combination of satellite remote sensing and field measurements is offering scientists a broader view of the evolution of this El Niño that was not available during previous El Niños, which were especially strong in 1982-83 and 1997-98.

The two research centres use data collected by satellites and buoy-mounted instruments to measure sea surface temperature. Researchers embark on quarterly cruises off the California coast to collect vertical temperature profiles in the upper reaches of the water column. They also count eggs of commercially important fishes such as sardines and anchovies as well as measure plankton volumes to estimate the amount of "production" available to marine organisms. NOAA's Advanced Survey Technologies Group assesses fish populations through acoustic surveys. In contrast with the last major El Niño, Scripps now deploys Spray gliders, diving robots that now gather ocean temperature and other data.

The scientists have observed a drop in biological abundance, or productivity, that appears to be related to the northward movement of warm water from the equator. The flow arrives in pulsing Kelvin waves that are detected by sea level and altimeter monitors and coastal tidal gauges. The layer of warm water often stifles the upwelling of nutrients from lower ocean depths that sustain larger populations of fishes and invertebrates.

A Kelvin wave is a gentle yet massive swell of warm water travelling across the Pacific from West to East. A typical Kelvin wave is 5 or 10 cm high, hundreds of kilometers wide, and a few degrees warmer than surrounding waters.

If El Niño conditions continue, they are likely to be characterized by weaker than normal upwelling and lower biological production. El Niño conditions are forecast to persist into spring. If so, they may result in fewer fish and breeding failure of seabirds.

Further Reading
A Curious Pacific Wave, Science@NASA
Scripps Institution of Oceanography

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Thursday, March 04, 2010


Barnacle Dinner in the Galapagos

The barnacle, a key thread in the marine food web, was thought to be missing along rocky coasts dominated by upwellings. Now a research team headed by Brown University marine ecologist Jon Witman has found the opposite to be true: Barnacle populations thrive in vertical upwelling zones in moderately deep waters in the Galapagos Islands.

Working at an expansive range of underwater sites in the Galapagos, marine ecologist Jon Witman and his team found that at two sub-tidal depths, barnacle larvae had latched onto rock walls, despite the vertical currents. In fact, the stronger the vertical current, the more likely the barnacles would colonize a rocky surface.

The researchers also documented the presence of whelks and hogfish, which feast on barnacles. This predator-prey relationship shows that vertical upwelling zones are “much more dynamic ecosystems in terms of marine organisms than previously believed,” Witman said.

Scientists who study coastal marine communities had assumed that prey species such as barnacles and mussels would be largely absent in vertical upwelling areas, since the larvae, which float freely in the water as they seek a surface to attach to, would more likely be swept away in the coast-to-offshore currents. Studies of the near-surface layer of the water in rocky tidal zones confirmed that thinking. But the field work by Witman and his group, in deeper water than previous studies, told a different tale: Few barnacles were found on the plates in the weak upwelling zones, while plates at the strong upwelling sites were teeming with the crustaceans. Flourishing barnacle communities were found at both the 6-meter and 15-meter stations, the researchers reported.

The scientists think the free-floating larvae thrive in the vertical-current zones because they are constantly being bounced against the rocky walls and eventually find a tranquil spot in micro crevices in the rock to latch on to.

Further Reading
Coupling between subtidal prey and consumers along a mesoscale upwelling gradient in the Galápagos Islands. Jon D. Witman, Margarita Brandt, Franz Smith. Ecological Monographs 2010 80:1, 153-177
Brown University News, Barnacles Prefer Upwelling Currents, Enriching Food Chains in the Galapagos

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