Michael Wing: Introduction to El Niño, July 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Bodega Bay, California
Date: July 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 15-25 knots, wind waves 3’-5’, northwest swell 4’ – 6’ at eight seconds, overcast.

Science and Technology Log

UC Davis graduate student and Point Blue Conservation Science intern Kate Davis took some plankton we collected to the Bodega Marine lab in Bodega Bay. She said she is seeing “tropical” species of plankton. A fellow graduate student who is from Brazil peeked into the microscope and said the plankton looked like what she sees at home in Brazil. The flying fish we saw is also anomalous, as is the number of molas (ocean sunfish) we are seeing. Plankton can’t swim, so some of our water must have come from a warm place south or west of us.

The Farallon Islands are warmer this year

The surface water is several degrees warmer than it normally is this time of year. NOAA maintains a weather buoy near Bodega Bay, California that shows this really dramatically. Click on this link – it shows the average temperature in blue, one standard deviation in gray (that represents a “normal” variation in temperatures) and the actual daily temperature in red.

NOAA buoy data
Surface seawater temperatures from a NOAA buoy near Bodega Bay, California


As you can see, the daily temperatures were warm last winter and basically normal in the spring. Then in late June they shot up several degrees, in a few days and have stayed there throughout this month. El Niño? Climate change? The scientists I am with say it’s complicated, but at least part of what is going on is due to El Niño.

Ryan at flying bridge
San Francisco State University student and Point Blue intern Ryan Hartnett watches El Nino

So what exactly is El Niño?

My students from last year know that the trade winds normally push the surface waters of the world’s tropical oceans downwind. In the Pacific, that means towards Asia. Water wells up from the depths to take its place on the west coasts of the continents, which means that places like Peru have cold water, lots of fog, and good fishing. The fishing is good because that deep water has lots of nutrients for phytoplankton growth like nitrate and phosphate (fertilizer, basically) and when it hits the sunlight lots of plankton grow. Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton; fish eat the zooplankton, big fish eat little fish and so on.

During an El Niño event, the trade winds off the coast of Peru start to weaken and that surface water bounces back towards South America. This is called a Kelvin wave. Instead of flowing towards Asia, the surface water in the ocean sits there in the sunlight and it gets warmer. There must be some sort of feedback mechanism that keeps the trade winds weak, but the truth is that nobody really understands how El Niño gets started. We just know the signs, which are (1) trade winds in the South Pacific get weak (2) surface water temperatures in the eastern tropical pacific rise, (3) the eastern Pacific Ocean and its associated lands get wet and rainy, (4) the western Pacific and places like Australia, Indonesia, and the Indian Ocean get sunny and dry.

This happens every two to seven years, but most of the time the effect is weak. The last time we had a really strong El Niño was 1997-1998, which is when our current cohort of high school seniors was born. That year it rained 100 inches in my yard, and averaged over an inch a day in February! So, even though California is not in the tropics we feel its effects too.

Sausalito sunset
Sunset from the waterfront in Sausalito, California

We are in an El Niño event now and NOAA is currently forecasting an excellent chance of a very strong El Niño this winter.

NOAA map
Sea surface temperature anomalies Summer 2015. Expect more red this winter.

What about climate change and global warming? How is that related to El Niño? There is no consensus on that; we’ve always had El Niño events and we’ll continue to have them in a warmer world but it is possible they might be stronger or more frequent.

Personal Log

So, is El Niño a good thing? That’s not a useful question. It’s a part of our climate. It does make life hard for the seabirds and whales because that layer of warm water at the surface separates the nutrients like nitrate and phosphate, which are down deep, from the sunlight. Fewer phytoplankton grow, fewer zooplankton eat them, there’s less krill and fish for the birds and whales to eat. However, it might help us out on land. California’s drought, which has lasted for several years now, may end this winter if the 2015 El Niño is as strong as expected.

Golden Gate Bridge
Rain will come again to California

Did You Know? El Niño means “the boy” in Spanish. It refers to the Christ child; the first signs of El Niño usually become evident in Peru around Christmas, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. The Spanish in colonial times were very fond of naming things after religious holidays. You can see that in our local place names. For instance, Marin County’s Point Reyes is named after the Feast of the Three Kings, an ecclesiastical holy day that coincided with its discovery by the Spanish. There are many other examples, from Año Nuevo on the San Mateo County coast to Easter Island in Chile.

Window selfie
Michael Wing takes a selfie in his reflection in the boat’s window

Lindsay Knippenberg: Hurricane Awareness Tour, May 5-6, 2011

NOAA Teacher in the Air
Lindsay Knippenberg
Aboard NOAA Aircraft Kermit
May 5 – 6, 2011

My adventure with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters started bright and early in Savannah, Georgia. I met the crew in the hotel lobby before the sun had even begun to rise and we were off to the airport. The crew of the aircraft were Aircraft Commander Carl Newman, Co-Pilot Cathy Martin, Flight Engineer Dewie Floyd, Crew Chief Wes Crouch, Flight Director Barry Damiano, Program Manager Jim McFadden, and Technicians Bill Olney and Todd Richards. Once we got to the airport the crew immediately got to work preparing our aircraft, a Lockheed WP-3D Orion, for departure.

The Hurricane Hunter aircraft is a Lockheed WP-3D Orion
NOAA has two WP-3D's. We would be flying on Kermit today. The other plane is named Miss Piggy and is currently in Fairbanks, AK.

While they were working, Barry gave me a safety briefing and showed me where I would sit, how to put on my seat belt, and what to do in case of an emergency. During our preparations the rest of the passengers arrived. Besides myself, several people from the National Hurricane Center, and Rick Knabb from the Weather Channel would be accompanying us on our flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Once the crew had gone through their pre-flight checklists, we all gathered for a pre-brief. The Commander went over the flight plan and the flight director briefed us on the weather that we would encounter on our flight.

Aircraft Commander, Carl Newman, reviewing our flight plan and going through safety procedures before our flight.

Everything looked good and we were ready to take off. I was so excited for takeoff. I have flown in airplanes before, but for this flight I would get to see what happens in the cockpit. I got to sit in the chief scientist’s seat and it was pretty amazing. I put on my headset so that I could hear the pilots communicate with each other and the tower.

I'm ready to fly!

It was amazing how many buttons and switches there were and how the pilots knew what each one did. When it was our turn to take off the propellers got louder and we raced down the runway until we lifted off the ground.

A pilot's job is not easy. This is just some of the buttons and switches that they have to memorize.
Heading down the runway and getting ready to takeoff.

My favorite part was when we went through the clouds. It was surreal to watch them get closer and closer and then we cut through them effortlessly.

Flying through the clouds on our way to Fort Lauderdale

Our flight to Fort Lauderdale was just over an hour long and we flew along the Atlantic coastline. It was cloudy for the majority of the flight, so we didn’t see too much, but the clouds did open up as we flew over Cape Canaveral and we saw the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building and the shuttle landing strip.

The NASA Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral. The landing strip for the shuttles is also in the picture in the bottom right corner.

Watching the landing from the cockpit was also pretty cool. The plane lined up with the landing strip and we got closer and closer until we gently touched down.

As we pulled up to the tarmac we could see everyone waiting for us. Several emergency response professionals, local National Weather Service employees, and volunteers would be helping out with the Hurricane Awareness Tour today. Together we would educate school groups, the media, and the public on hurricanes, how they are studied, and what to do in the event of a hurricane.

A firefighter telling students about his job during a hurricane and how they can prepare for hurricanes at home.

Our morning started out with over 500 students from 13 schools. My job was to talk to the students about the instruments on the outside of the plane while they waited for their turn to tour the inside of the plane. The students were a lot of fun and they had some really good questions and observations about what they saw on the outside of the plane.

I got to teach the students about the outside of the plane before they went inside.
The students liked the stickers on the outside of the plane showing the hurricanes that the plane had flown through and the countries that it had visited.
Are those torpedoes? No, they are cloud physics probes that image individual cloud particles by using lasers (much cooler).
What is attached to the belly of the plane? It's a C-Band lower fuselage radar

In the afternoon we opened up the tours to the public. A long line formed and we slowly made sure that everyone got to see the inside of the plane. There were people of all ages and they were all very excited to see the plane and learn about hurricanes. I helped the meteorologists from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center answer questions from the people waiting in line. I’m definitely not a hurricane expert, but after listening to the meteorologists all day I was beginning to feel like one.

It was very rewarding for the crew to give tours of the plane to war veterans.

After everyone had seen the plane, the crew began to prepare the aircraft for the trip home. The crew had been to four different cities over the past week on the Hurricane Awareness Tour and they were ready to go home and see their families and get some much-needed rest.

Two of the crew members were even from my home state of Michigan.
The co-pilot, Cathy Martin, and I. It was an inspiration for many of the students to see a woman hurricane hunter pilot.

For the flight home I got to sit in the navigator’s seat. It wasn’t as exciting as sitting in the cockpit, but it was cool to be able to see our course and watch our changes in altitude. The flight home was pretty amazing because we flew below the clouds at 4,000ft. I had never seen the Everglades before and it was incredible to see them that closely. It took us about an hour to get to MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, FL where NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center is located.

I got to sit in the navigator's seat for the flight home and we didn't even get lost.
Flying over the Everglades.

When we landed, we unloaded our gear and put the plane to bed in the hanger. I really liked the hanger because there were several NOAA planes that are used for a variety of different observations and projects.

The NOAA flag hanging in Hangar 5 at MacDill AFB. Home to NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center (AOC).
All tucked in and ready for a good night's sleep.

It was a very long day and when I finally made it to my hotel that night, I collapsed. It was an awesome day and I was so appreciative of the commander and crew of the hurricane hunter for welcoming me onto their aircraft and teaching me about hurricanes and about what they do.

Thank you for a great day Commander Carl!