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NOAA Confirms El Nino

Image from NASA

Warm water patterns in the Pacific during normal (upper) and El Nino (lower) years. The lower image is from 1995-96. Image from NASA

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today confirmed what many had pretty much surmised: El Nino is back.

Officially the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the cyclical pattern of ocean conditions has broad implications for weather and the Pacific food chain.

According to the NOAA news release:

“NOAA expects this El Niño to continue developing during the next several months, with further strengthening possible. The event is expected to last through winter 2009-10.”

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center suggested about a month ago that conditions were right for the return of El Nino.

More recently, the high incidence of underweight sea lion pups turning up along the California coast was taken by some as a harbinger of ENSO. During El Nino cycles, normal upwelling of deep, cold water slows down, essentially shutting down the “food elevator” for many species.

Of course, there can be an upside. According to NOAA:

“El Niño’s impacts depend on a variety of factors, such as intensity and extent of ocean warming, and the time of year. Contrary to popular belief, not all effects are negative. On the positive side, El Niño can help to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity. In the United States, it typically brings beneficial winter precipitation to the arid Southwest, less wintry weather across the North, and a reduced risk of Florida wildfires.”

Links to climate change are less clear. Some scientists have suggested that warming air and sea temperatures might bring about more and longer El Nino events.

The Return of El Nino?

The federal Climate Prediction Center, operated by NOAA, reported this week that current conditions in the Pacific would seem to foreshadow a return to El Nino conditions, possibly within the next few weeks.

2006 El Nino conditions, as observed by the Jason satellite. Photo: NASA

2006 El Nino conditions, as observed by the Jason satellite. Photo: NASA

The ocean conditions formally known as ENSO, or the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, arise when normal upwelling of deep, cold water abates, causing warmer surface temperatures (SST).

El Nino and its opposite, La Nina, have far-reaching implications on weather patterns. Here on the West Coast, it usually means wetter winters in southern California and drier ones in the Pacific Northwest.  Because northern and central California lie in between, things there can go either way.

El Nino can also have a significant impact on fisheries, as much of the food chain is interrupted when upwelling slows.

Here’s a good overview of El Nino “mechanics” from UC Berkeley.

Paddling to the Sea

Jessie Raeder is Bay Area Organizer for the Tuolumne River Trust. More than 200 paddlers are expected to take to the river between now and June 7, for this river awareness relay. Raeder offers this dispatch from the starting line, near the headwaters in Yosemite National Park.

By Jessie Raeder

Paddle to the Sea got off to a roaring start over the weekend.  Melting snow caused by an early heat wave in the Sierras had the river pumping at much higher flows than rafters typically face. The Tuolumne is usually rated Class 4–but goes to Class 5 when flows get over 4000 cubic feet per second.   This weekend saw the river flowing at 7000 cfs! For a while it looked like we might have to cancel all the whitewater trips due to safety concerns, but in the end one trip did go on and needless to say it was an epic journey for our Paddle-to-the-Sea team.

A paddler takes on the Clavey. Photo:

A paddler takes on the Clavey. Photo: Patrick Koepele, Tuolumne River Trust

Meanwhile, an international team of 12 hotshot kayakers ran the Clavey River, a tributary of the Tuolumne and one of only three remaining free-flowing rivers in the Sierra.  The Clavey is a class 5+ river that’s rarely run and only by experts.

Paddle to the Sea is a three-week festival to foster stewardship of the Tuolumne River. Hundreds are joining in this epic journey from the Sierra to the Sea. Kayakers and rafters will begin on the upper stretches of the Clavey and Tuolumne Rivers, travel through the Central Valley where canoers take the lead, pass through the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers, and sea kayakers will finish the trip in San Francisco Bay.

A changing and increasingly unpredictable water supply will be the first way that most people in California experience climate change affecting their own lives.  Here in the Bay Area, tap water for 2.5 million people comes from the Tuolumne River, whose headwaters start with melting snow from the Lyell Glacier (picture attached).  That glacier is on the retreat, and more frequent droughts are expected throughout the Sierra.

Paddle to the Sea is meant to demonstrate that issues that affect one section of the river ripple up and down the watershed.   Bay Area water users share this resource with farmers in Modesto, anglers in Yosemite, the commercial salmon industry on the Pacific, and a host of native fish, plant, and wildlife species, many of which are endangered.

As population and demand for water continues to grow, California will be faced with many questions about how we use water, and where it will come from.  The Tuolumne River Trust is working to ensure that we turn to water efficiency and water recycling as much as possible–alternatives which are far more sustainable and renewable than continuing to take additional water from the Tuolumne River, which has been the solution most turned to in the past.

 

California Not Catching the Wave…Yet

Tom Banse’s radio report on West Coast wave energy aired Thursday morning on The California Report. It’s also posted to the Climate Watch Radio section on this site.

A Crib Sheet for West Coast Ocean Energy

Every now and then when the government gets something right, it’s only fair to give credit.  So today we give props to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for making public records easily accessible.  Combined with our handy-dandy crib sheet, you can be the reporter and dig up all sorts of newsworthy nuggets.  We’ll get to some examples, but first the overview:

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Photo by Tom Banse.

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Image provided by: Ocean Power Technologies

Starting in 2006, there was a “gold rush” on the ocean to stake claims for wave energy sites.  Now the spray is settling and an industry shakeout is occurring.  Energy developers have given up on about a third of the wave power projects they proposed along the West Coast.  Some tidal power proposals are ebbing away as well.  When things go sideways, we rarely get a press release about it.  Often the news pops up first in a filing to FERC.

FERC is the agency that oversees wave and tidal power projects in state waters (up to 3 miles offshore).  The agency’s webmasters set up an “eLibrary” to archive project applications and correspondence.

You can see on the crib sheet that FERC dismissed three ocean energy projects in California waters last month.  The simple explanation is that the three projects ended up on the wrong side of a bureaucratic turf battle.  The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) won jurisdiction over all energy development on the outer continental shelf, defined in this case as more than three miles offshore.  Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company president Burt Hamner explained in an e-mail:

FERC has cancelled its entire preliminary permit process for projects located on Federal ocean waters, and thus dismissed our seven pending applications for preliminary permits (as well as those of a few others).  The new MMS framework says that applicants for wave projects must first get a MMS lease for space, then apply to FERC for a commercial hydropower license.  But, MMS is prohibited from issuing leases in national marine sanctuaries.  Two of our projects, San Francisco and Hawaii, are in sanctuaries.  Therefore these are terminated because there is no way to get a lease or permits there.

At the City of San Francisco, utility specialist Randall Smith said the FERC dismissal of the city’s preliminary permit for the Oceanside project “doesn’t put us back to square one, but does force a step back.”  Smith elaborated, “The difference with MMS is getting a lease.  That’s a little more protracted.”

One wave power project was proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right).

A wave power project proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right) is in limbo.

The voluminous dockets for PG&E’s WaveConnect projects off Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, and the Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park suggest those are the ones moving ahead the fastest.  PG&E recently secured $6 million to pay for environmental studies, design work, and permitting.  The utility started its community outreach by scheduling two town meetings–in Eureka on May 19 and Ft. Bragg on May 21–both scheduled for 6 pm.

And now, the secret code: An easy way to keep tabs on a marine energy project is to make note of the applicant’s docket number (the one that starts with P-xxxxx) and then periodically plug that number into a “Docket search.”  (Click on “Submit” rather than the more prominent “Search Consolidated Dockets” button.)Here are all of the West Coast wave energy projects proposed to FERC, listed from north to south, as of this week:

P-12751 Makah Bay (Finavera)  license surrendered  4/09

P-13058 Grays Harbor Ocean Energy (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  11/2007

P-13047 Oregon Coastal Wave Energy (Tillamook Intergovernmental Dev. Entity) 10/2007

P-12750 Newport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  permit surrendered 3/09

P-12793 Florence Oregon Ocean Wave Project (Oceanlinx)  4/2007, withdrawn 4/08

P-12713 Reedsport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12743 Douglas County Wave Energy (Douglas County, OR)  9/2006  (oscillating column device on Umpqua River jetty)

P-12749 Coos Bay OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12752 Coos County Offshore (Bandon, Oregon) (Finavera) permit cancelled w/o objection 6/08

P-12779 Humboldt County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-12753 Humboldt County Wave Energy (Finavera) permit surrendered 2/09

P-13075 Centerville OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  11/2007

P-12781 Mendocino County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-13053 Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC)  10/07

P-13377 and P-13378 Fort Ross Project- N & S (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13376 Del Mar Landing Project (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13308 San Francisco Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company, LLC)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

P-13379 San Francisco Oceanside Wave Energy Project (City and County of SF)  filed 02/09 Dismissed 4/09

P-13052 Green Wave San Luis Obispo Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC) filed 10/07 pending

P-13309 Ventura Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

Total proposed wave energy projects since 2006: 21

Total projects scrubbed by developer: 5

Total projects rejected by FERC: 3

For extra credit – Noteworthy tidal energy projects:

P-12585 San Francisco Bay Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy)  10/08

P-12672 Columbia River Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy) Permit surrendered 3/08

 

Congressman: Delta Fish a “Worthless Little Worm”

Peter Johnsen, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: Peter Johnsen, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In hearings by the House Energy & Commerce Subcommitee today, Rep. George Radanovich (R-Fresno) called the Delta smelt “a worthless little worm that needs to go the way of the dinosaur.” He made the remark as part of a five-minute attack on “environmental alarmism,” in response to testimony from former vice-president Al Gore, founder of the Alliance for Climate Protection.

The tiny fish, recently listed by the state Fish & Game Commission as “endangered,” came up in remarks by Radanovich about the current drought conditions in the Central Valley. He blamed the lack of water on lawsuits that have restricted water supplies to farms, “for a Delta smelt–a worthless little worm that needs to go the way of the dinosaur. They’ve shut pumps down and restricted water deliveries to California over that thing, when what’s eating it is a striped bass, a non-native species in the Delta.”

Radanovich rejected the possibility that climate change might be a player in the current drought. Instead he took aim at what he described as “collaboration between environmentalists and sport fishermen,” blaming that for slashed water allocations to farms, as many as 60,000 job losses and “a $6 billion-dollar hit to our economy.”

“That is not global warming,” he said. ” “It’s the result of bad policy caused by environmental alarmism.”

Joining Gore among the 21 witnesses before the subcommittee on Day 4 of the climate bill hearings was UC Davis professor Dan Sperling (.pdf link), who had just come from a marathon hearing before the California Air Resources Board. Last evening the Air Board approved the first-ever Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, as part of it’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases.

Climate Linked to "Silent Streams"?

Memo to anglers: If you’re wondering why they’re not biting, it may be because they’re not there. Little noticed this week was a report from the U.S. Geological Survey, detailing the staggering losses that freshwater fish species have suffered across the U.S. The report describes nearly 40% of North America’s freshwater fishes as “imperiled.” The figure represents a 92% increase over a similar survey done in 1989 by the American Fisheries Society, which participated in the new report. USGS director Mark Myers cited loss of habitat and invasive species as primary causes for the decline but noted that “climate change may further affect these fish.” The news is worse for California, as topping the Survey’s at-risk list are “salmon and trout of the Pacific Coast and western mountain regions.”

Release of the report followed by one day Terry Root’s keynote presentation at the California Climate Change Conference, in which the Stanford researcher warned of a catastrophic loss of trout habitat in California, due in part to climate change.