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Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Above-average temperatures are being recorded across the Pacific Ocean. Scientists say climate change is likely partly to blame. Yet researchers are still figuring how warming trends unique to this body of water are interacting. The current El Nino could be one of the strongest ever recorded. And scientists say a decades-long cycle of heating and cooling, could be switching to a warming phase. Other climatologists are monitoring a strange zone of warm water off of North America. For this month’s Environmental Outlook: Guest host Indira Lakshmanan talks with a panel of guests about warming in the Pacific Ocean and effects on weather patterns and marine life.
- C. Mark Eakin Coordinator, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program
- Nicholas Bond Research scientist, Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, University of Washington.
- Francisco Chavez Senior scientist and biological oceanographer, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
- Robert Kunzig Senior environment editor, National Geographic Magazine
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. She has the flu. Above average temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are having profound and often negative effects on marine life. Scientists are reporting that warmer waters are leading to the bleaching of coral reefs in new areas, large toxic algae blooms and dramatic changes in fish migration.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANWith me in the studio to talk about the warming in the Pacific and what it means for our ecosystem, Mark Eakin with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Robert Kunzig of National Geographic magazine. Joining us from KUOW in Seattle, Nicholas Bond with the University of Washington. And by phone from Moss Landing, California, Francisco Chavez of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANWelcome to all of you.
MR. MARK EAKINGreat. Glad to have -- glad to be here.
MR. ROBERT KUNZIGGreat to be here.
LAKSHMANANWe also want to hear from all of you, our listeners, this hour. If you have comments or questions for our panel of environmental experts, you can call us throughout the hour on 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send us a message on Facebook or tweet us at @drshow. So Robert Kunzig, let's start with what we actually know. Above average temperatures are being recorded across the Pacific Ocean. Climate change is one cause, scientists say, but there are number of other factors involved, too.
KUNZIGThat's right, Indira. It's really a pretty complicated drama that's unfolding in the Pacific. And when we say above average, we're talking about temperatures of 4 or 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average, which, for the ocean, is really big. And let me just go through the cast of characters. You mentioned climate change. That is unquestionably part of what's going. It's part of all our weather on Earth today. The Earth is 2 degrees warmer almost than it was a century ago and the ocean is close to a degree warmer.
LAKSHMANANBut you're saying the Pacific is 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.
KUNZIGIn the sea surface temperatures in the Pacific, in parts of the Pacific along the North American coast, and now with El Nino also in the Equatorial Pacific, are 4 to 5 degrees warmer at the sea surface. But I'm saying the ocean as a whole has warmed by nearly a degree Fahrenheit as a result of our -- the climate change we've caused. And...
LAKSHMANANSo climate change is one thing. And some of the others?
KUNZIGClimate change is definitely -- is one thing that is going on everywhere. El Nino, we're in the middle of what may turn out to be the biggest El Nino every recorded and that's basically a pronounced warming of the Equatorial Pacific, warm water from the Western Pacific sloshes east, releases a ton of heat, affects weather everywhere. We see it on our weather forecast.
KUNZIGAnd then, there's another less well known character called -- and less well understood character called the Pacific decadal oscillation and that's a -- it's sort of like El Nino scientists will tell you, but it's different. It's a longer time scale. It lasts for about 20 years and it's basically temperature seesaw between the interior of the North Pacific and the coastal and tropical waters.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we'll take these one by one. They are all interacting and influencing ocean temperatures. Mark, you're an expert on El Nino and climate change. I read that we're, as Robert just told us, in the midst of an El Nino that might be the strongest on record. Tell us about it.
EAKINThat's right. In fact, in late fall, it peaked with water temperatures in the Central Pacific higher than anything that we saw in 1998. So by that measure, it actually is the strongest, but there are a number of ways we measure El Nino so it's hard to tell. One of the things that makes this most interesting is that every El Nino looks different. The way that it forms, the way the water circulates and the effect it has on the climate system and the organisms and the fact that this sitting on top of this extremely warm Pacific Ocean caused by climate change means that it has a completely different sort of character in the way that it's manifesting.
EAKINLike people in California who were expecting lots and lots of rain, they got some rain for while, but now the rain is shut off and so, you know, you're seeing different patterns. And so every El Nino is not going to look the same.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Nick, scientists have also been talking about the warming and cooling trend that Robert mentioned, the Pacific decadal oscillation. It sounds very complicated. Break it down and explain it to us lay people.
MR. NICHOLAS BONDWell, yeah, it's a pattern that we see in the North Pacific sea surface temperatures in which it tends to be kind of a yin-yang between the kind of western North Pacific and the kind of horseshoe shape along the coast of western North America. And it tends to vary on kind of longer time scales and we've definitely seen it kind of go into the positive phase with very warm temperatures along the west coast in North America.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Nick, you've actually been studying an usual zone of warm water off the west coast of North America. You've dubbed it The Blob, which sounds pretty ominous to me. So what is The Blob and should we be worried about it
BONDYeah. And I don't know if I should apologize or not, but that name, I kind of came up with it by accident. I think it's actually kind of apt because it has sort of morphed around over the last couple years. But what really attracted my attention was in early 2014, there was an unusual pattern of very warm water off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and just kind of a shape that we hadn't seen before. And it was kind of unprecedented and so it got a lot of our attention and, boy, did the name take off.
BONDAnd but since, well, later in 2014, it has kind of morphed again into kind of a wide strip of warm water along the west coast. But the big deal there is that it's warm enough to really have a big impact on the ecosystem.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, break it down for us. Exactly how big is The Blob and how much warmer is the water?
BONDYeah. It was, you know, over 1,000 miles across in kind of a semi circular or a quasi circular pattern, which is kind of why I started calling it that. It was on the order of, again, 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than normal, a huge signal that we had -- we just hadn't seen the water that warm for that time of year. And we're still figuring out exactly what caused it. Certainly, the unusual weather patterns of two winters ago were very important in terms of its formation and then in turn, how much it has impacted weather along the west coast in North America and even over the North Pacific, that's an open question.
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, I'm wondering, you know, climate models predict that this type of phenomenon might actually be more common, even if this one dissipates. We might be seeing others like it.
BONDYeah, that's true. And that's something that is of quite a bit of interest and concern, of course. And in particular, some of the drivers of what we've seen on the kind of global scale in the climate system, there's some indication that as the climate is changing, we're gonna get into these patterns more frequently and so that's something we really want to figure out.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Mark, link this back to El Nino for us. How does the warm blob of water affect El Nino and affect, you know, the waters south of the zone and weather?
EAKINWell, that's a really good question. It's uncertain how the two interact. The Blob was around before this El Nino and as this El Nino became very large, the circulation patterns in the atmosphere have largely caused The Blob to fall apart. So there is not surface expression of The Blob, although if you look under the water, you can actually find some warm water beneath the surface, sort of lurking there. There may be a circulation pattern that lead to The Blob that was actually a precursor to the El Nino, may even give us some enhanced prediction capability in the future for really big El Ninos, maybe not.
EAKINThe two are interlinked, but it's a real question in the minds of a lot of folks, just how The Blob formed and how the two might be related.
KUNZIGIndira, if I could jump in there.
KUNZIGI think -- and we're talking about funny names. There's also something called the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge, which is the...
LAKSHMANANThe triple R.
KUNZIGYes, which is a high pressure zone and Nick can speak to this far better than I, but I believe that is considered one of the proximate causes of The Blob. It's basically a big, high pressure zone that sat off the coast of the Pacific Northwest in California and was associated with the California drought. So in a way, you can think if The Blob as kind of a heat wave in the ocean, a very persistent heat wave caused by this high pressure system that prevented winds from mixing cooler water from below.
LAKSHMANANGive us the full name again so our listeners can Google it.
BONDIt's called the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and if you've been reading about the California drought, you've encountered that.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Francisco, warmer weathers are, of course, changing the migratory patterns of sea life. So tell us -- give us a quick picture before we go to our break, of what you are seeing there in one of the most beautiful places in our country, in the Monterey Bay in the California coast.
MR. FRANCISCO CHAVEZWell, the tropical species are brought northward during these El Nino events and that's a very common occurrence. And things like ocean sunfish and Skipjack Tuna making it all the way to Alaska, very, very unusual. We -- our beaches here were covered in red by red pelagic crabs that are brought northward from Baja, California. And following them, come up blue fin tuna, who are predators of those species. Green turtle seen in San Francisco Bay. We've never seen things like that, organisms that are typically found in Mexico. Rare pigmy killer whales, you name it, the whole ecosystem up here off California changed during the El Nino event.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So a lot of changes that we're already seeing. Our California's beloved sea lions and other marine mammals also changing their migratory patterns, quickly?
CHAVEZThey are mainly suffering because their normal food isn't available for them.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we will talk about that more when we come back. We'll also be taking your comments and your questions. Call us on 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to email@example.com. We'll take a short break. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour we're doing our monthly environmental outlook, and we're talking about the warming of the Pacific Ocean and all of the effects on our ecosystem from that, which is happening to our Earth's largest body of water with Robert Kunzig, a senior environment editor with National Geographic Magazine, author of "Mapping the Deep" and co-author of "Fixing Climate." Also with Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program. Joining us from Seattle is Nicholas Bond, a research scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington, and Francisco Chavez, a senior scientist and biological oceanographer at the beautiful Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
LAKSHMANANRight before the break, Francisco, we were talking about -- I mentioned the beloved sea lions, which are so iconic in the San Francisco Bay area, and the other marine animals, and you were saying that they are being hurt by the Pacific warming. Tell us what's happening to them, what's happening to their food sources.
CHAVEZWell, they tend to be anchored to places where they breed, sea lions primarily in the Channel Islands, and they normally feed on small, hadopelagic fish like anchovies and sardines. And those species tend to either move northward or go deeper, making foraging for them much more difficult for the adults. And the primary sufferers, of course, are the pups, and the whole year class of pups this year may be completely lost as a result of conditions we're seeing now.
LAKSHMANANAre there other forms of marine life in California that you're seeing that are really being affected by this changed temperature of the ocean? I'm thinking about, I was reading about sunfish and lizardfish coming up from the tropical waters along the West Coast. You mentioned the red crabs and the Blue fin tuna. Tell us a little bit more.
CHAVEZYes, the lizardfish and other tropical fishes I mentioned earlier come up. There is one interesting phenomena that has been linked to this warming that is perhaps less well-known, but the crab fishery in California, as many of you know, has been closed as a result of a toxic algal bloom.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. Well, we will definitely get to that. I mean, the toxic algae bloom is also a separate thing that's being caused by the global warming, I mean by the warming water that is affecting. Nick, I mean in November, as Francisco was saying, officials closed Washington state's Dungeness crab fishing, too, right?
BONDYes, and so also recreational clam harvests in Washington state, which is a big deal from a tourism point of view.
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, why don't we dial it back a little bit and explain to us what is the toxic algae bloom that is making the crab unsafe to eat and why.
BONDYeah, it's a toxin produced by a marine diatom, Pseudo-nitzschia, that is a potent neurotoxin for higher trophic levels like marine mammals and humans, and it was kind of unprecedented both spatial scope, the kind of duration of it, and the intensity of this algal bloom from California up into the Gulf of Alaska. And this to me is the scariest single part of this event was -- because just the toxin levels were so high.
BONDAnd so, properly so, officials, you know, shut down fisheries as a result, and it is something that's got a lot of our attention.
LAKSHMANANWell, it was so high, it was actually the shellfish became toxic, as you said, throughout Washington, Oregon and California's fisheries. I read that a single clam could have enough toxins to kill a person according to the research at one of the labs at NOAA, Nick.
BONDYeah, I think there were some very high levels. I'm not sure if a single clam, but I was just at a talk last week at an ocean conference in which a single crab, at least, would've done enough, and it was just everything that was sampled was -- had this toxin in it and some at, you know, very high levels. And it is very sobering. It could've been a kind of a special sort of perfect storm that made it especially bad, but it still is a lot of concern because, you know, these warming events, I'm afraid, are going to become more frequent in future decades.
LAKSHMANANWell, dangerous not only to the marine life that Francisco was telling us about but dangerous to human life and actually creating an economic problem for coastal communities who rely on fishing, right?
BONDYeah, that's right, and I mentioned the tourism industry along the Washington coast really took a hit because people couldn't go out and get the razor clams, and their commercial fisheries were shut down. And so yeah, it's been a big deal, and it looks like it's kind of winding down, at least in parts of the West Coast, but there's still some beaches, for example, in Washington state that are closed because of the toxin levels.
LAKSHMANANRob, scientists have been reporting fewer salmon in some areas in the Pacific Northwest, as well, because the plankton that they normally eat is not in these warm waters. Tell us about that.
KUNZIGI'm not sure I'm the best person to answer that question sitting here. Someone out in Washington is probably better.
LAKSHMANANAll right, fill us in, Nick.
BONDYeah, yeah, that's right. There seems to be kind of a competition between the plankton that favor more warm water and those that are more adapted to cold water. And it turns out those plankton, especially the zooplankton, the little bugs that are the cold-water species, are larger, and they have more fat in them, and so they're more nutritious for the juvenile salmon and a lot of sea birds and so forth.
BONDAnd so we've seen, especially along the Oregon coast, disproportionate percentages of these kind of subtropical, warm-water plankton that just aren't as good a food. And so we know that the salmon that went out to sea last year, especially the Coho salmon, weren't just getting the preconditions they want. They were skinny, and we're pretty sure that the survival rates of those salmon is going to be lower than we'd like, and that means lower returns as adults. So it's a big deal, and we can trace that.
LAKSHMANANYou're explaining something -- you're explaining something that affects our dining tables, too, because that Coho salmon that I love has been not as tasty, thinner and more expensive, and now I know why thanks to you.
BONDYeah, yeah, that's right. Thank you.
LAKSHMANANAll right, Francisco, El Nino has also been changing something called upwelling in the ocean, which is also affecting plankton. Tell us what is upwelling and how is it affecting plankton on the West Coast.
CHAVEZWell, the reason why we have all this rich biota here is because cooler water is brought up to the surface as a result of the winds and the rotation of the Earth, and that process we call upwelling. That deeper water is kind of like a compost that you would make in your backyard. Material sinks down, degrades, and minerals get regenerated. And that -- those minerals are brought up to the surface, we put them in contact with sunlight, and plankton blooms, and then we have this rich sea life that people come to see here in Monterrey all the time.
CHAVEZDuring El Nino, that process is reduced, either by moving that source of nutrition deeper or by weakening the winds, hence the change in the plankton that Nick was talking about.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well because of these plankton changes, you have also noticed other changes down the food chain, right?
CHAVEZCorrect, that propagates all the way down. One of the interesting things about this change in species is that the so-called biodiversity, which is kind of a hot topic these days, changes pretty dramatically. It actually increases because we get all these different species. But the whole food chain is affected all the way to the sea lions. We get new species coming in. The whole -- we get a whole new cadre of sea life in Monterrey Bay.
LAKSHMANANAnd some of it's disappearing. The jellyfish, which are usually very abundant in Monterrey Bay, have virtually disappeared when the plankton populations have dropped, right?
CHAVEZCorrect, loggerhead turtles come all the way from Indonesia to feed here on those jellyfish. They make a long trek, and they were scarce this year.
LAKSHMANANAll right, we have an email here from -- an email, I actually think it's actually a caller. All right, let's take her, Libby from Washington, D.C. Libby, you're on the line. Go ahead.
LIBBYYes, good morning. This is a fascinating conversation.
LIBBYI'm a scuba diver and primarily on the East Coast, Caribbean, The Bahamas, but I know there are a lot of -- I think there are coral reefs in Hawaii, California coast, the cold current I think makes it too cold, you get kelp rather than coral, but I noticed one of your experts is a coral reef person. So I'm wondering how, in the Pacific, basically probably talking about Hawaii, how the warmer weather is affecting it. We have a lot of bleaching of coral in the Atlantic, and we also have corals being killed by algae blooms.
LAKSHMANANAll right, great question from Libby. I second her concerns about this, being a scuba diver myself. So is warm water causing the bleaching of coral reefs and causing fish to expand their habitats, Mark?
EAKINThe bleaching is going on all around the world at this point. We have had a bleaching event that started in the middle of 2014 and has been going on and will probably continue all the way through this year. In the past when we've had these global-scale bleaching events, they've managed to -- you know, everything has happened during one year.
LAKSHMANANAnd tell us what bleaching is for people who haven't heard the term.
EAKINThe difference in this one is that this one's probably going to be about a two-and-a-half-year-long event. Now bleaching, so people don't understand bleaching, but they also don't understand corals because they wonder, you know, is it a plant, is it an animal. Well, thinking of animal, vegetable, mineral, it's actually all three. So a coral is an animal, and living in its tissues are microscopic plants called Zooxanthellae. They're these little algae that provide the corals with most of their food and also helps the coral to build the skeleton, and that's the mineral part. So you have all three of these components.
EAKINWhen the water gets too warm, it actually disrupts the relationship, the symbiosis between the animal and the plant, and because the plants start producing toxic materials, the animal, the coral, will actually expel the algae into the water. When it does that, the coral, the tissue of the coral, is actually clear so that the light can get to the algae, and the algae can make food. So when the algae have been expelled, you can see the white skeleton underneath, and that's why it looks bleached.
EAKINNow at that point the coral isn't dead. If the event is short-lived or mild enough, then the coral will recover its algae, and all will be good. They are more susceptible to disease at that point, but if it's long-term or severe, the corals die, and that's what we're seeing right now.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Well, Mark, NOAA recently declared one of the worst bleaching events on record with damage in some places you've never even seen before.
EAKINIt's huge. The event, as I say, started in 2014 and has been going in the Pacific, moving around in different spots, since then. The caller was asking about Hawaii. There had been one bleaching even seen across multiple islands back in '96 but really hadn't been much bleaching. They thought that Hawaii was pretty safe. In 2014, they saw some extensive bleaching along the coast of Oahu and a little bit elsewhere, major bleaching up in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
EAKINBut then in 2015, severe bleaching, the warming came up from the southeast, and so it hit the big island and Maui and those islands the hardest, making it all the way up through the chain, most severe bleaching they've ever seen. We've also been seeing bleaching elsewhere throughout the Pacific, and this year in particular we were seeing severe bleaching and fish kills in Fiji that were really severe a couple of weeks ago, right before Tropical Cyclone Winston came through, and of course that has had very bad effects on the people there, over 20 people dead and so forth, but it does cool the water for the corals. So there is some benefit there.
EAKINIn New Caledonia, just last week they reported that they're seeing widespread bleaching and severe bleaching around the islands. New Caledonia is an island off the coast of Australia. And speaking of Australia, just yesterday a press release came out from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that they're seeing widespread but mild bleaching at this point, but at Lizard Island, an island off the northern coast, the northern Great Barrier Reef, they're seeing the worst bleaching they've seen since at least 2002.
EAKINSo we've been seeing this event across the Pacific. We saw it two years in a row in the Caribbean, especially in Florida, it was hard hit in 2014 and 2015. We've seen it in the Indian Ocean last year. We're expecting it to be even worse in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia this year. And we're concerned that Florida may be seeing a third bleaching event in a row this year.
LAKSHMANANAnd it's sad and tragic not only for the, you know, for the people who want to look at the beautiful coral but for the entire ecosystem that is affected by the coral being bleached, right, Rob?
KUNZIGYeah, absolutely, I mean corals are sort of havens of marine biodiversity. And this might be the point to mention that they're facing a threat not just from warming but from the sort of dark twin of climate change, which is ocean acidification. It's caused -- global warming is caused by the carbon we put in that atmosphere. A lot of that carbon gets sponged right up by the ocean, and the ocean becomes more acidic, just like Coke with carbon dioxide in it. And that is a big challenge for any organism that makes a calcium carbonite shell, like corals.
LAKSHMANANWell, I think you may be answering a question from one of our listeners, Carl (PH) in Ohio, who is saying people keep talking about rising ocean temperatures, but don't forget to address ocean acidification because it is killing important plankton, he says.
KUNZIGYeah, and at first, I mean, for a long time when -- I started writing about climate a quarter-century ago, and people used to talk about how it was a good thing that the ocean was absorbing a quarter of the CO2 that we put in there, it's slowing down the warming, just like forests are. But then over time, biologists have gradually realized just how -- just what an effect this can have on the life there. Basically it makes it hard for things to make their shells.
KUNZIGAnd at a certain level, they -- and at certain places it can even become impossible.
LAKSHMANANYou know, Rob, we're hearing about all these negative effects, but there was an article in the New York Times yesterday that some invasive species who've multiplied due to climate change, they were talking about land species, maybe beneficial. Are there any marine species that are benefitting from the warming of the Pacific or maybe in some other way helping the ecosystem?
KUNZIGI'm not sure I can speak to helping the ecosystem, but I think it's -- the whole concept of an invasive species in an open, fluid system like the ocean is a little bit less well-defined. Things move around more. But I know Francisco was speaking earlier to all the strange immigrants he's been seeing off Monterrey. Whether that's good for the ecosystem, I, you know, I don't know.
LAKSHMANANYou were going to jump in quickly, Mark?
EAKINYes, just in coral reefs, for example, when these things happen, there are always winners and losers, and that's true in most ecosystems. So there are some organisms that are going to benefit while others are being harmed. So you're going to see some changes in these ecosystems. You may see an increase in some types, while others are becoming less common.
LAKSHMANANI know Francisco, we're going to come to you as soon as we are -- oh no, we have some time. Go ahead, Francisco, you wanted to jump in?
CHAVEZYeah, I was just going to follow up on a couple of points, one on the acidification front. It turns out that along the West Coast, this El Nino actually reduces that problem because the upwelling process is actually responsible for some of that. And the second one was on the movement of species northward, that the warmer water, just like on land new areas will be opened up, new areas will be opened up for species to move into, and as Mark was saying, there will be winners and losers.
LAKSHMANANAll right, and we'll hear more about who they are when we come back. We'll take a short break now, but when we're back, more of your comments and your questions. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. In this month's Environmental Outlook we are talking about the warming Pacific Ocean, that key and biggest body of water on our planet, with Robert Kunzig, senior environment editor at "National Geographic" magazine and author of two books, "Mapping the Deep," and co-author of "Fixing Climate," Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program, Nicholas Bond of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington, and Francisco Chavez, a senior scientist and biological oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
LAKSHMANANFrancisco, right before the break we were talking about winners and losers among marine life from this warming pattern. I still am sort of left scratching my head and wondering are there any winners.
CHAVEZWell, species like tuna are physiologically restricted to warmer waters. And so they can't make a living in Alaska, for example, normally. If waters off Alaska warm up sufficiently, like they did during this event, those species can go in there and take advantage of forage that wasn't available to them previously.
CHAVEZOther species, not necessarily under warming, but climate change, things like the giant squid, Dosidicus gigas, has expanded its range from what it had been many years ago to much further north than we'd ever seen it before. So there -- the opening up of these new areas that fish normally could not -- certain fish couldn't normally take advantage of, will potentially cause a benefit.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So a limited…
CHAVEZAnd that benefit will be -- yeah.
LAKSHMANANTo a limited number of species like the tuna. Rob, I wonder if you can answer an email from Liz, in Clearwater, Fla., who says, "What can reasonably be done to help fix these desperate migrations of marine animals?" She's talking about the many other animals like the sea lions we talked about, who are being negatively impacted.
KUNZIGWell, first, let me just give one more example of Francisco was telling about, that's kind of interesting. And that is that at the Arctic sea ice has been retreating dramatically there and that is terrible for things like polar bears that require the ice for the feeding behavior. But it is, as I understand it, been relatively good for some species of whales whose feeding is not dependent on the ice. Basically, they have more open water to feed in and populations of some whales, like the bowheads, are increasing.
KUNZIGAs far as what can be done to help migrating animals, I don't know that their, that migration is under our control. But I don't know of any solution other than solving the problem itself, which means getting our hands around climate change.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's go to a call from Mitch, in Baton Rouge, La. Mitch, you're on the air.
MITCHHi. Thanks for taking my call.
LAKSHMANANThank you for calling.
MITCHYeah, I've always had this question of global warming experts. It was just mentioned earlier that the oceans, I think the amount was like 25 percent of CO2 is dissolved in the ocean. My question has always been if in fact the initial culprit -- and I'm not trying to be a global warming detractor here, but if it's in fact the sun has gotten hotter. If the sun has gotten hotter and the oceans begin to warm, would not their ability to absorb CO2 or act as a huge CO2 sink be reduced because warmer liquids can't hold as much gas in suspension? And would that be maybe science seeing what we think as a cause, in other words CO2 is a greenhouse gas, actually being an effect, rather than a cause?
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, let's find out. We have some of the top scientists here on this question. Let's go ahead and find out. Rob?
KUNZIGYeah, I would say first the sun hasn't gotten hotter. And the second is we know we're putting -- it's correct that the warmer water would hold less CO2, but we know how much CO2 we're putting in the atmosphere. We know that that CO2 traps warmth. And we know that we can explain the observed warming with thermometers by including the CO2 that we've put in the atmosphere. And we cannot explain it if we do not include that. So it's…
LAKSHMANANAnd, Mark, you are tracking all of these weather patterns at NOAA. We have a question here, an email, from Jean, and many other people have sent similar emails, saying, "Please comment on the recent change in how ocean water temperature is measured. I understand from an article in the 'Wall Street Journal' last month that the previous method utilized satellite data and now water temperature is measured from ships."
EAKINOh, actually, both were being used the whole time. One of the things is that whenever you're making measurements, those measurements are taken with a certain amount of error. We know that no measurement is perfect, for example. Satellites are looking through all of the atmosphere down at the ocean surface to measure what's going on at the surface of the water. The ships, you know, when you're taking the ship measurements, this is actually coming through a flow-through system, where water comes jetting through tubes into the ships, gets measured and then goes back out.
EAKINAll of these have some disruption to what's going on. The buoys and where the buoys are floating in the water, how deep they are, how the water is being circulated at the time, there are all kinds of things that influence these measurements. And so what has gone on most recently is using the combination of all the measurements we have. The experts at the National Centers for Environmental Information have been able to resolve some of the discrepancies that were seen in the past, where they realize that there were some errors in the way the measurements were mad and were able to change the way that they're adjusted in the calculations, so that they address these errors in the observations.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Yes, Rob?
CHAVEZYeah, your listeners might be interested to know about the fact that measurements of ocean temperature and the process of getting a lot better. Since about 2000 there's been a system of robotic floats. They look like little torpedoes that are just now, there are now close to 4,000 of them distributed all over the world, operating autonomously on their own, going up and down about nearly half a mile -- no, I'm sorry, a mile, and measuring temperature and salinity continuously. So it's only been going since 2000 so we don't have that data going way back to track the change. But as time goes on we will have a much better idea of just how much heat is getting absorbed in the ocean.
LAKSHMANANOkay. And we have a comment from Rachel, in Tampa, Fla., one of our listeners whose comment to all of this discussion back and forth you're having just now, is "With all the evidence that climate change is happening, how can people deny it?"
KUNZIGWell, that's -- I think it's a big and hard to fathom problem, that is also a very alarming problem. And sometimes I think it's also a problem of the messenger. People don't like the messenger and so they don't like the message. But I definitely believe that's changing. I mean, it's -- for one thing, if you travel, you see that climate change denial is a very American phenomenon. And the agreement that was just reached by 190 nations of the world to do something about it in Paris is an illustration of how the tide on that question has really turned.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's take a call from Sam, in Washington, D.C. Sam, you're on the air.
SAMHi. Thank you all so much for talking about what's happening to oceans and elevating the issue and the importance. So I started up a company, along with my classmen in grad school, called Coral Vita, that's growing resilient corals to restore dying reefs. And we're trying to preserve the ecosystem benefits and health for future generations. And with what we're seeing now with reefs dying and with projections that we'll lose the remaining 75 percent by mid-century, I was just wondering if the panel and the guests could just help listeners visualize how reefs dying out will affect not only food chains, but also the, you know, the important marine ecosystems and socioeconomic benefits that reefs provide to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
LAKSHMANANWell, thank you, Sam. And what an interesting project, to grow resilient corals to restore reefs. Thank you so much. Go ahead, Mark.
EAKINYes, coral reefs are an extremely important ecosystem. What people don't realize is that probably even more biodiverse than rainforests. So we really -- instead of calling the coral reefs of the rainforests of the sea, we ought to be calling the rainforests the coral reefs of the land. Coral reefs cover about a tenth of 1 percent of the sea floor, but support somewhere around 25 percent of all marine fish species. So the diversity is huge. These are habitats that are extremely important for fish that people rely on as their main source of food.
EAKINAbout a half of a billion people around the world are dependent on coral reefs. They provide tremendous break waters for reducing storm energy coming ashore. So these are all things that are lost when coral bleaching occurs. So as climate change has been going on and we've been seeing more of this bleaching, we've been losing these resources. As corals die, reefs die, and the combination of that with ocean acidification we were mentioning earlier.
EAKINThe ocean acidification makes it much harder for the corals to grow back after a disturbance event comes through. And so the combination of these two factors, both of which are driven by the rising CO2 in our atmosphere, are really reducing the amount of this important resource that people rely on.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We have an email from Alexander, who says, "How will the Pacific Ocean warming impact fishing practices of Pacific Island Americans in Hawaii and other American territories, such as Guam and American Samoa?" Nick, is that something you can comment on?
BONDI would actually defer to Mark here, just a kind of more lower latitude expert. I'm a Northwest guy.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Mark?
EAKINSo in some of the areas with the changes that we're seeing, the fish that are coming through are different. So the fishing practices that the people are used to may not be as effective. Certainly, in some of the islands where they're having problems with the warm and still conditions, in Fiji, for example, they have these major fish kills. And they were losing thousands and thousands of fish that were part of the fish in the inner reef areas that are used for local fishing. So some of these patterns will affect the way that people are able to fish.
CHAVEZYes, these -- El Nino changes fishing practices probably everywhere in the world, but along the tropics it's well known that yellow fin tuna moved from the western Pacific into the central Pacific much more. And, you know, they've changed the fishing practices here in California. People catching wahoo and other tropical fish. Peru, the islands, probably Japan, everywhere, the change in species is pretty global. And so the fishermen adapt.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to our calls. We have Mike, from Deerfield, N.H. Mike, go ahead.
MIKEHey, thank you for taking my call.
MIKEI am sort of concerned about the pile of trash floating around out in the middle of the Pacific. I assume there'd be a lot plastic. Would the sun magnify and heat the ocean temperature that way?
LAKSHMANANAll right. Thank you, Mike. So he's asking is the pile of trash in the Pacific contributing to the problem. Yes, go ahead, Nick.
BONDYeah, and there -- it's kind of a misnomer. You get the sense that it would, you know, you could walk across the ocean on all the plastic bottles and all that. It's mostly little tiny pieces. And it really doesn't impact how dark the ocean is and how much solar heating it takes up and so forth. It's an environmental disaster, certainly. But it doesn't seem to play a role in the -- kind of the warming of the ocean so much. And -- but it is something that people are taking serious. And there's even sort of thoughts about what could be done about it.
EAKINAnd we use satellites to look at the color of the ocean, to look for things like chlorophyll from plankton blooms and things of this sort. And when you're looking out in those areas where the great Pacific gyre, where this big area of trash is, you can't pick up the trash in the satellite imagery. So it's not something that's decidedly different in appearance. The trash if fairly diffuse out there. But it's a big ocean, so it's a lot of trash.
LAKSHMANANWell, Robert, I want to bring it back to the questions of climate change, the stronger El Nino. Can all of this be pushing this cycle into a new warmer phase?
KUNZIGWell, we're putting a lot of energy into the system. The Earth is a big heat engine. And the oceans and atmosphere have the job of distributing all the solar energy that flows into the tropics all around the planet. And we're basically, by adding greenhouse gasses, cranking up the energy in the system. What exactly that's gonna do to individual climate oscillations or weather systems is really a matter of intense scientific research.
KUNZIGThere were -- there have been a couple of papers in the past couple of years that suggested that El Nino would not, which happens now every two to seven years, would not get more frequent. But the intense El Ninos, like the one we're in right now, would become more common. That you basically would have twice as many of those, with twice as many of the attendant weather effects around the planet in the future.
LAKSHMANANMark, have scientists been able to determine whether warm water is causing hurricanes and what all of this means for storms and weather patterns?
EAKINWell, warm water does hurricanes or tropical cyclones of any sort. And it's a mechanism of distributing heat that's, you know, much warmer in the tropics and moving that northward. But the real question has been is climate change increasing hurricanes. You know, are they getting more frequent, are they getting stronger. And the jury is still out on that one. The -- we know there's more energy and that energy is going to result in changes in these storms.
EAKINSome of the best evidence so far is that it may not increase the number of storms, but it may make them stronger. So we'll see -- still have to watch to see exactly how that plays out.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Nick, before we wrap up here I want to ask you your blob of warm water off the West Coast has also been associated with some change in weather patterns.
BONDYeah, it turns out that it was the atmosphere in the first place that caused the blob, but then once that water was warm, because the prevailing winds on the West Coast are from the west, that it is in turn kind of warmed up the Pacific Coast region over the last couple of years. And we've had consistently warm weather. And that, in part -- it's not necessarily the primary thing going on, but has -- the warm ocean has contributed to that.
BONDAnd we could really see the impacts last winter in the Pacific Northwest, in which we had a very poor snow pack. We had plenty of precipitation, but it fell in the mountains in the form of rain rather than snow. And that -- a secondary effect there was the regional ocean temperatures.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Last quick question from a listener called Donna, in North Carolina, who wants to know if the Fukushima meltdown played any role in rising temperatures, algae bloom or anything else.
LAKSHMANANAll right. That's the answer from Rob. All right. Then we have time for one more from Brandon, a listener who's tweeted us, asking, "How does the warming affect ocean currents?"
EAKINWell, the currents are driven by the winds and by the movement, rotation of the Earth. We -- as we get more warming in some areas, we're going to see changes in these currents. Certainly coastal currents, like they're seeing in California, are effected very strongly.
LAKSHMANANAll right. That was Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program. Also joining us Nick Bond, research scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington, Francisco Chavez, a biological oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and Robert Kunzig, a senior environment editor with National Geographic magazine. Thanks to all four of you for joining us for this really interesting hour on Pacific warming. And thanks to all of our listeners for staying with us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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