Understanding El Niño by space, sea and land

Efforts to monitor the weather phenomenon striking this year

El Niño, “the little boy” in Spanish, packs a big punch for weather patterns all over the world. This natural occurrence begins in the Pacific Ocean at the equator as sea surface temperatures rise and trade winds halt. On this week’s TechKnow, the team speaks with scientific experts that run the gamut from the boundaries of outer space to the bottom of the ocean floor looking to see how science is preparing for more impending storms.

Bill Patzert is a research scientist at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Lab. His research looks at improving climate forecasting. One device he is using is an instrument on the Jason satellite called an altimeter. It bounces signals off the sea surface and measures the travel time which explains how much heat is stored in the ocean. 

TechKnow host Phil Torres and JPL's Bill Patzert

“The Pacific covers 30 percent of the planet,” said Patzert. “So I always say, when the Pacific speaks, everybody everyone around the planet better listen.” 

TechKnow also spoke with Jenn Caselle, a marine biologist the University of Santa Barbara. She is observing the sea life of the Pacific and seeing how El Niño is impacting ocean life. She says that this year is already unprecedented in terms of species not normally found in her area of study.

“The things we’re seeing up here now in my area, we do not see, except on El Niño’s and some of the things we don’t see during normal El Niño’s, but only this big one,” said Caselle.

Caselle and her team are currently looking at various species that may be hit hard from El Niño, including crabs and sea urchins. Urchins are a very important industry for Southern California, and the Marine Institute at the University of Santa Barbara houses some in their tanks to study the species. 

Phil Torres reaching for urchins with Jenn Caselle

“The urchins are actually being affected pretty negatively by the warm water,” said Caselle. “We just noticed that we might be on the start of an urchin disease epidemic or die-off.”

As space and sea experts use science to prepare, infrastructure engineers are making sure Los Angeles County can handle the oncoming deluge of rain safely. TechKnow’s Crystal Dilworth spoke with a civil engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Sterling Klippel at the foot of the Morris Dam in Azusa, California. Dilworth and Klippel discussed how El Niño could help replenish water reservoirs. Klippel is confident that with the engineering improvements made to various dams in LA County, they’re ready for action. 

Sterling Klippel and TechKnow's Crystal Dilworth

“We have invested a lot of time and money in doing projects over the last 10 years to make sure that these dams and infrastructure that was built in the ’20s and ’30s really are employing now the latest and greatest technologies,” said Klippel. 

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