MOSS LANDING, California-The 1997-98 El Niño/La Niña had an unprecedented roller-coaster effect on the oceanic food chain across a vast swath of the Pacific, plunging chlorophyll levels to the lowest ever recorded in December 1997 and spawning the largest bloom of microscopic algae ever seen in the region the following summer.
According to new results published in the December 10 issue of the journal Science, El Niño also dramatically reduced the amount of carbon dioxide normally released into the atmosphere by the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Data from an array of instruments on buoys, on ships, and in space, including NASA's Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS), gave researchers an unprecedented view into the extreme biological effects of last year's El Niño/La Niña event.
Over the past decade scientists have been able to observe the development and progression of El Niño warmings-and consequent changes in upwelling of nutrient-rich ocean waters-thanks to data continuously collected in the Pacific by the buoys of the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean array, maintained by NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.
In 1996 new biological and chemical sensors were added to some of these buoys by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), allowing researchers for the first time to directly and continuously gauge the fluctuating levels of biological productivity and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the region. The launch of SeaWiFS in 1997 added yet another ocean-monitoring tool capable of detecting subtle changes in ocean color that are directly related to the concentration of chlorophyll, a prime indicator of biological activity in ocean waters.
"This is the first time we've ever had a continuous set of biological measurements from moored instruments and satellites during an intense El Niño, and we've never seen such low chlorophyll concentrations," said MBARI biological ocea
Contact: Debbie Meyer
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute