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El Niño's dramatic impact on ocean biology and carbon dioxide captured by unique monitoring system

nographer Francisco Chavez, lead author of the new study.

It was the mooring measurements and SeaWiFS data that revealed surprisingly low and high levels of chlorophyll, coinciding with El Niño's strongest phase and the transition to La Niña cooling. When the warm-water layer produced by El Niño extended to its greatest depths and the upwelling of nutrients necessary for phytoplankton growth virtually ceased, chlorophyll values plummeted. Phytoplankton (microscopic algae) form the base of the oceanic food chain.

The researchers were again surprised in mid-1998 when chlorophyll levels skyrocketed, revealing the largest ever observed phytoplankton bloom, in area, for the equatorial Pacific. In their published results, the researchers suggest that elevated iron concentrations stimulated this intense bloom, a result of the increased upwelling associated with La Niña. Iron, an essential nutrient for phytoplankton growth, is thought to be the limiting nutrient for productivity in the equatorial Pacific under normal conditions.

El Niño can also be credited with drastically cutting the amount of carbon dioxide that this ocean region normally adds to the atmosphere. Unlike most parts of the world's oceans, the equatorial Pacific is a major contributor of atmospheric carbon dioxide because of the carbon-dioxide-rich deep ocean waters brought to the surface here and the relatively low levels of biological activity. The researchers calculate that 700 million metric tons of carbon normally released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide were kept in the ocean during the year that El Niño conditions dominated the equatorial Pacific. This is equivalent to half of the United States' total annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning.


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Contact: Debbie Meyer
debbie@mbari.org
831-775-1807
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
8-Dec-1999


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