Thursday, July 24, 2014

Views from the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Pterygophora californica, in the stiff "breeze" that is all too common at Elwha dive sites

This week marked the beginning of another year of sub-tidal surveys designed to track the response of the marine biological community to the removal of the Elwha Dams. And for the most part, after two years of (not surprisingly) pretty poor visibility, reasonably good visibility is back, with some sites that I had the chance to dive providing visibility in excess of 20 feet. Which also means that we are collecting more good photography and video. So here, all shot at sites around the Elwha delta and fresh off the SD card, are a few for you to enjoy.

Pterygophora californica stipe, hosting its own micro-community

Urticina columbiana in the surge

Terebellid worm

the enchanting Balanus nubilus

the cryptic Saxidomus gigantea

Metacarcinus gracilis - I always need to check twice to make sure its not a Dungeness

Pagarus armatus, with a diver in the background

a multi-species cluster: Eudistylia vancouverii, Schizobranchia insignis and (possibly) Eudistylia polymorpha

Probably Citharichthys, utilizing the newly sandy habitat at our site 4SP1 near the mouth of the Elwha

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An El Nino winter on the coast?

NOAA,s Climate Prediction Center is projecting a strong probability of El Nino conditions developing this summer and persisting at least through winter. Should this happen, and particularly, should strong El Nino conditions develop, it could mean a winter of frequent coastal flooding and possible shoreline erosion in the inland waters of Washington State.

First off, what is an El Nino? At its root, El Nino is related to a relaxation of the trade winds that girdle the globe at near-equatorial latitudes.

A nice short description of global atmospheric circulation and the trade winds by Dr. Keith Meldahl of Mira Costa College

This relaxation of the trade winds, in the simplest sense, allows warm equatorial ocean water that is typically forced to the western side of the Pacific basin to "slosh" back to the east. And this has a variety of important consequences on our coast on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean basin, including increased sea water temperatures and sea level. Sea water temperatures influence things like ocean productivity and the occurrence and distribution of organisms. In our area, El Nino tends to be associated with some pretty interesting appearances of rare or anomalous organisms.

The water level consequences, though, are what I want to focus on here. El Nino are associated with elevated mean water levels. For example, here are the average mean monthly water levels (relative to MLLW) for Port Angeles and Neah Bay (top panel below) as reported by NOAA's Center for Operational Products and Services:

So there are a variety of patterns of interest in the top panel - first you can see that mean sea level (this is the average of all recorded water levels over every month) varies over the course of a year, with higher sea levels in winter versus summer (on the order of ~20 cm higher in winter for Port Angeles and Neah Bay). This is why we tend to see more flooding in winter versus summer in our area, even though the astronomical tides reach very similar elevations in the two season. Your eye might also be able to register the pattern of falling relative sea level in Neah Bay on this graph, that is probably due in large part to vertical uplift of the earth's surface there.

The bottom panel shows the same data, but with the average seasonal water level pattern removed from the data in the top panel (and also only shows the time period for which the two datasets overlap) this essentially shows you how much mean water level is different from the long-term average. And this is where the two strong El Ninos in the record, in 1983 and 1998, really pop out (I've also circled them in blue). So during both of those events the PNW experienced multiple months of water levels that were ~ 30 cm above average...thats over a foot! That matters, especially in the winter when it gets added to the typically ~20 cm of elevated water level. The coastal impacts of the 1983 and 1998 El Nino are poorly documented in Washington State, but even the weak El Nino in 2010 caused concern in our area.

As of yet the strength of the El Nino that appears likely to develop isn't clear...but given the relative sea level rise patterns in Puget Sound, any extra mean water level added on top of rising seas is bound to get some notice.