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Satellite imagery pinpoints El Niño's disruption of marine ecosystem

WASHINGTON -- While evidence of the 1997-1998 El Niño was readily apparent on land--with storms and flooding that caused millions of dollars in damage--new studies have detailed El Niño's extensive consequences in the ocean environment. New evidence produced by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, shows that warm, nutrient-depleted waters ushered in during the El Niño resulted in a reduction in phytoplankton--the plants that are the base of the marine ecosystem.

Using high resolution, color-sensitive images from U.S. and Japanese satellites, Mati Kahru and Greg Mitchell report in the September 15 issue of Geophysical Research Letters that the 1997-1998 event--one of the strongest El Niños on record--supplanted the normal upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters in the California Current System.

"When El Niño suppresses the availability of nutrients in the sunlit surface waters, the abundance of phytoplankton declines," said Greg Mitchell, research biologist in the Marine Research Division at Scripps. "Phytoplankton communities are the primary producers for the ocean, comparable to grasslands for terrestrial systems. Success of fish population recruitment, and therefore commercial fisheries, may in part depend on interannual cycles of nutrient and phytoplankton distributions associated with El Niño and La Niña."

The authors argue that one of El Niño's effects on the California Current System is both a reduction and a more uniform distribution of phytoplankton, which results in a critical reduction in the high-concentration patches of phytoplankton that may be necessary for success in the planktonic stages of fish populations.

While Kahru and Mitchell documented reductions in satellite estimates of surface phytoplankton for water off central and southern California, they found a significant increase off Baja California. "These
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Contact: Harvey Leifert
hleifert@agu.org
202-777-7507
American Geophysical Union
5-Sep-2000


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