EL Nino – Perspective KQED aired in August 1991
Recently a friend was rejoicing about what a fog-free summer we have had so far, she loved it. But I know what that really means. No fog means there’s no cold water right next to the coast, no cold water means there has been no upwelling of deep ocean water, no upwelling means there has been no recycling of nutrients up to the surface, no nutrients means there has been little production of plant life or phytoplankton, no phytoplankton means nothing for the little animals, the zooplankton, to eat, no zooplankton means there are no blue or humpback whales feeding off our coast and it means no schooling fish, no schooling fish means no salmon, it means hungry sea lions, it means sea birds unable to breed. In other words it looks like we are having another El Nino.
The last big El Nino we had was ten years ago. Remember those days? Huge storms and waves washing away Malibu. Barracuda were caught in Monterey. Salmon fishermen’s boats were repossessed by the banks. The population of sea birds crashed. Scuba divers were reporting over a 100′ visibility, unheard of in central California. And I went swimming nearly every day at Muir Beach in water that was 68.
El Nino is primarily a southern hemisphere event. Off the coast of Ecuador and Peru upwelled nutrient rich waters support the largest single source of protein in the world, the schooling fish called anchoveta. Every year around Christmas the productivity of the waters cease and the fish disappear. The fishermen call this time El Nino, after the Christ Child. Periodically, every seven years or so, the entire anchoveta crop fails to develop and this is also called an El Nino.
Now whenever there is failure of upwelling or an intrusion of warm water anywhere in the world we call it El Nino. So I don’t mean to suggest that us coastal dwellers should not luxuriate in the balmy, fog-free environment but just remember while you’re soaking up the rays, some poor baby cormorant is dying of starvation. But heh, this environmental calamity is a apparently a natural one and for this one at least we cannot blame humankind.