Mother Earth is pregnant, and we know it’s a boy. The next El Nino (“male child” in Spanish) is predicted to arrive this year, and its warming of the Pacific is tragic news for corals and other temperature-sensitive creatures. Think of El Nino as a bad boy that sets animals on fire.
This month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) issued an official watch for El Nino, but don’t hold your breath. That baby will gestate for months before being delivered conclusively. Weather geeks will be salivating for months over maps and statistics to reveal the global pattern, much like economists freak out with quarterly indicators.
The oceanic warming trend is of particular concern to the future of coral reefs, because they were blasted during the last strong El Nino in 1997 to 1998, when large percentages of corals perished worldwide (resulting in an estimated loss of 16% of all coral reefs). The map below from NOAA shows the projected risk to corals until September this year.
When summer returns to the Southern Hemisphere later this year, you can bet that the map’s colors will migrate south. For the near term, though, the most severe warming appears clustered around the Pacific coast of Northern America, a place with relatively few tropical coral reefs.
For the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, the warming impacts could be delayed by about one year if the pattern holds from the 1997 to 1998 El Nino event. If so, the summer of 2015 could bring another devastating bleaching event to Caribbean coral reefs.
Warm water could hit the Atlantic with or without El Nino in the Pacific. In 2005, Caribbean reefs experienced severe bleaching and the highest recorded temperatures in the region, even though the El Nino effect was considered weak.
NOAA has established a special Coral Reef Watch based on satellite data to keep a close eye on changes in oceanic temperatures. Why? Reefs need to be watched closely because they are under great stress, and a major disturbance could push many reefs over the edge and into the metaphorical abyss.