The Sea, The Sky

El Niño teaches us to respect the rhythms of the earth
and raises some surprising questions about global warming

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 32
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

The Earth, as we land mammals must constantly remind ourselves, is two-thirds water. Understanding the role that oceans play in the earth system is vitally important but, surprisingly, often gets short shrift. Richard Barber has long been interested in the connections between the ocean, atmosphere, and life on this planet – including human life. For many years a professor at Duke University Marine Lab, he was a principal researcher on the El Niño phenomenon which first gained international attention in 1982-83.

Richard is now Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, founded in 1987 by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard computers. The Institute takes advantage of the deep waters of the Monterey Canyon to study the role that ocean boundary processes – both physical and biological – play in regulating the earth’s climate.

Alan: How did you get interested in oceanography?

Richard: In 1957, when I was an undergraduate, I took a course from an ecologist named Gene Odum at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, and after that there was never any doubt in my mind as to what I was going to do. A lot of people in oceanography and marine biology have had a similar conversionary experience, after which they become committed to the profession and never really seriously consider anything else. That was certainly my case.

I had always hung around the water – with my father on a boat and messing around in ponds close to my house. After I took this course, I realized I could do this and make a living at it. It just seemed an incredibly great way to spend one’s life, poking around the way I did for fun!

Alan: Was it a question of the ecology, too? Did you get a sense of conviction about the need for this kind of work, or was it more a matter of interest?

Richard: No, in that era it was more curiosity – there were so many unanswered questions that practically anything one dug into was unanswered. Pollution seemed to be a very localized phenomenon, but of course it really wasn’t. The town I grew up in had one of the first eutrophication suits ever filed, in 1949 when I was a kid poking around in those creeks. It’s recognized by EPA now as a watershed legal case. It did not result in a conviction, but the defendant agreed to send its vegetable processing waste to a ground treatment system.

So I grew up camping and wandering on the land application site, because it was a great forest where this waste water was sprayed to get rid of the oxygen demand and excess nutrients. The land application turned out to be a perfect solution, and it’s a solution that exists to this day.

Alan: Can you describe the path that led to your work on El Niño?

Richard: Yes, that’s a very clear track. One of my teachers in the ecology course in 1957 was a researcher named John Ryther. When I was a graduate student, I read in Science magazine that he was leading an expedition to the coast of Peru. I wrote asking to go with him and he said okay, so I did my Ph.D. research on that cruise. Several of the young scientists who were on that cruise in 1966 decided that we had only scratched the surface of those problems, and we designed another expedition to go back in 1969.

Alan: What sort of problems were you were dealing with?

Richard: We were studying coastal upwelling: how the current pattern brought nutrients up to the surface, how the nutrients supported very rich growth of plankton, and how the plankton were eaten by fish, birds and marine mammals. We focused on the relationship between currents, nutrients, and the plant productivity, or the base of the food chain. On the ’66 cruise we saw a lot of things but we didn’t have any physical oceanographers, so we had to guess at what the currents were doing. In 1969 we formed a partnership with a group of physical oceanographers, and from this grew the Coastal Upwelling Ecosystems Analysis [CUEA] program. It was the first of the "big science" programs in the National Science Foundation. It was multi-disciplinary, and it was a team effort with a lot of organization between various scientists.

Alan: Was there international participation as well?

Richard: Yes, particularly in the work at sea. We had both Peruvian and Ecuadorian scientists and ships that cooperated with us, and when we worked off Northwest Africa we had French and German ships involved.

Alan: So you maintained a research interest and presence in those issues, and that led to being on the scene when the El Niño phenomenon surfaced?

Richard: Yes, although the connection is actually tighter than that. In CUEA we were determined to understand the physical coupling between the atmosphere, the wind, the currents and the biology. We put a lot of effort into that – with airplanes, satellites, ships and moorings – and a lot of things became clear.

We were showing how when the local winds stopped blowing, within about a day the upwelling currents would stop. We were tying down the connection between the local weather – the winds within 50 miles or so – and the oceanography. But in the course of this very detailed study, we would notice big changes, dramatic changes, in the ocean off Peru which had nothing to do with the local weather.

Two of us in CUEA got as interested in these exceptions as we were in the rule, and after the CUEA program ended we proposed another program to determine the origin of these processes. We hypothesized they were remotely forced – things that happened a long way away were suddenly causing the currents to reverse by means of waves that were created one place, traveled through the ocean, and then had an effect when they came up along the coast.

Alan: Were you successful in getting funding?

Richard: Not at first. We formed a fairly big team to look at remote forcing and wrote up a detailed proposal, but it was unsuccessful two years running. Then Bob Smith, a physical oceanographer at Oregon State, and I put in single-investigator proposals to NSF and were successful.

This enabled us to set an extremely small program in place on the Peru coast. The CUEA program ended in 1980, and our program starting in April or June 1982. Then, in September of 1982, the biggest ocean event of the century started to occur.

Now, we were in the water making observations, saying we were going to study that sort of thing. But this was a small program, not a big program like we’d had six years before.

Alan: To draw an analogy, you were just there to study some little waves, and suddenly the biggest tidal wave of the century hit.

Richard: Yes, but it turns out that with a bigger wave, the questions were easier to resolve. In fiscal terms, we’d set a mousetrap along the Peru coast to catch remote variability and this elephant blundered into it. The nice thing was that our mousetrap held the elephant, and we were able to get a superb set of measurements on this great anomaly. It was really easier, because the anomaly was so huge.

Now, being in place in June for an event of the century that started in September is sheer luck. And it helps to be lucky, but then when you’re lucky it helps to recognize it and be ready.

For the next year, every research vessel that left to go through the South Pacific had somebody from our research group on it – usually just one person, because again we were a small project. In that year we got seven cruises through the area and a description that was about 100 times better than anything that had existed before, because this was a big one. As it unfolded, I kept assuming that it was going to end immediately and that I’d better catch it right then. So we kept pouring more and more work into catching it. It turns out it lasted for eight months, and we were working as hard at the end of that time as at the beginning.

Alan: What happens in El Niño?

Richard: First, what happens in normal conditions is that the wind blows northward along the coast of South America, then turns and goes west along the equator. As it does that, it drags water, forces water away from the coast. And water then comes up from below to replace it. That’s the process of locally forced or wind-driven upwelling.

This wind that’s blowing west pushes water across the Pacific Ocean, so you end up with a high stand of water against the Philippines and Australia and a low stand off the coast of Peru and California. The reason for that tilt across the Pacific is the friction of the wind containing it. The kinetic energy of the wind becomes potential energy in the western Pacific. Then, if the wind varies somewhat, potential energy is released and it forces water back across the Pacific.

Alan: If there’s a reduction in the wind’s strength, for example?

Richard: Yes. And as this potential energy and water starts rushing back, it has enough energy to run through the normal wind regime off the coast of Peru. Normally the winds are trying to roll the water offshore, but this wave and current pattern comes through and rolls it onshore. That’s the remotely forced feature that we saw a couple of times in our study in the mid-70s. In 1982-83, we saw it happen in a big way as this relatively massive readjustment took place.

So the upwelling ecosystem gets overridden with warmer water. That cuts down on productivity, because this warm water is low in nutrients – the rich plankton growth doesn’t take place. Also many tropical species are carried into the area: you find tropical oceanic fish now up against the coast. But the upwelling ecosystem has a great many individuals in it, and in fairly short order they have trouble getting their food, because their food chain’s been interrupted and another ocean ecosystem comes in on top of them.

Alan: Let me sidetrack here to make a connection. In WorldWatch’s State of the World 1988, they attribute the drastic decline in the Peruvian anchovy fishery primarily to overfishing in the early 1970s. Did El Niño exacerbate that decline?

Richard: As a matter of fact, the issue is much more complex. That fishery was fished at the level of 10 million metric tons for about four years in a row and did just fine. Then in 1972-73 El Niño rolled through, and the fishery has in essence never recovered. The 10 million metric ton harvest wasn’t overfishing when the environment was like it had been before. But when the environment varied, it became suddenly unfavorable. That’s a natural thing.

That fishery came from nowhere – it started at 100,000 metric tons in 1957, the first year that it was fished, and in 1983 it went right back down to the same number. But at a point in between, it was twice as big as all the single-species fisheries in the United States put together. It was the world’s greatest single-species fishery by a long shot.

It also crashed, and there’s no doubt that man had a hand in that. But the hand that man had was typical – what the humans were doing was okay as long as the natural variability of the ecosystem didn’t occur. And of course natural variability always occurs, because variability is one of the characteristics of the earth. This is a classic fisheries situation. You establish a fishing level in the good years, then the not-so-good years come along, and what was previously acceptable harvest becomes unacceptable.

Alan: So what’s needed is more integration between what’s happening in the natural environment and what the fishermen are doing.

Richard: Yes. And to put it specifically, a system of development – in the banking sense, an investment strategy – is needed. For example, in South America, one out of every seven years the fishermen are never going to be able to pay back their loans, and one out of every four years they’ll have half their normal productivity. But the investment concept is based upon a steady-state planet. You take the mean of the historical record, you lend money – importantly needed for capital investment – and then you get dependent on that average level of productivity when the data (at least for the ocean off of South America and North America) indicates there will be an alternating sequence of good and bad years. So you need a strategy that lets you recognize the bad years early, very rapidly switch to an alternative behavior, and particularly not to push the resource during the bad times.

And of course, it’s currently just the opposite. If you’re connected to the economic system in any way, when things get tough, the pressure to service your investment increases. You push what little resource is left harder and harder.

Alan: Regardless of the natural phenomena, you’re going to go out there and catch as many anchovies as you possibly can.

Richard: Right. The government of Peru has gotten much wiser than most governments, and they are quick now to close the fishing seasons when the environmental signals start to look bad.

Alan: So the feedback loop is more adjusted now?

Richard: Yes, it’s adjusted in the government of Peru, but it’s not clear that it’s adjusted in the international investment community. In this case, the government of Peru says, "We’re closing the fishery," and then the development process just screams in anguish; but they have definitely learned to take the longer range view and that’s a nice feature.

Alan: One thing that is popping up a lot of places is how the accounting systems just do not provide all the feedback messages we need to regulate our activity.

Richard: Yes, and that is illustrated again in another consequence of this warm water arriving off the coast of Ecuador, Peru and Chile. When it comes it changes the normally arid climate to wet – it rains a lot and there is tremendous flooding. The biggest human cost is in mud slides and drownings. Roads, wells and the like are hit very heavily, as is agriculture.

When El Niño showed up in ’82-’83, Peruvian and U.S. oceanographers recognized it. The advice from this small group of people to the agricultural community was to sit tight – to do nothing – but instead they went ahead and planted a crop, put out the money for seed and fertilizer. And of course, they got washed out again and again. That was money that shouldn’t have been spent. But at that stage of our understanding no one really believed ocean and atmospheric scientists who said, "This is going to be a big event. It’s going to rain like hell."

El Niño in the Pacific

Two views of the Pacific Ocean as seen by satellite, 1981 (top) and 1983, during El Niño (bottom). The shaded area indicates warmer temperatures — notice the absence of the cooler "tougue" in the lower panel.

What other global effects did El Niño create?

Richard: In general, it’s a displacement on a basin-wide scale in the Pacific of warm water from one side to the other side. So when that warm water is taken away from the western Pacific, it racks the western Pacific with drought. In fall of ’82 a huge forest fire burned across Australia, and a fire that burned for several months in Borneo was the biggest and longest ever recorded. It put a tremendous amount of particulates in the atmosphere – more than many previously known volcanic eruptions – and did huge damage to the Borneo rainforest.

The agriculture in Southeast Asia and south China suffered severe drought, as did the rainforest of Thailand and Southeast Asia. One of the first indications of the scale of this event was the satellite pictures in October 1982 showing the Thai rain forest as being brown instead of green. When you started to put these things together, you saw an event reaching all the way from Australia, Thailand and south China across the Indonesian area to South America.

Now the spring of ’83 was the wettest on record in the southeastern U.S. There was tremendous flooding in the inter-mountain west too, and Great Salt Lake started its present over-filling process during that period. If you look at satellite pictures, you see that this moisture came from the warm water on the Equator just west of the Galapagos Islands, up across Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, and over the southeastern U.S. In a normal configuration, that moisture would leave the Equator way over on the Western Pacific, go north of Hawaii, come into North America in the southeastern Alaska area and in essence create the rainforests of the northwest. But the warm water had been displaced so far to the east that the moisture was now hitting the southeast U.S. instead of the northwest.

Alan: And this was, as far as we know, an entirely natural phenomenon – humans had nothing to do with it?

Richard: Correct. This is a natural oscillation, and what makes it so hard for humans to deal with is that it is aperiodic and fairly low frequency – that is 4 to 7 years between events, and maybe as long as 100 years between very strong events.

Alan: It’s just unpredictable.

Richard: It’s unpredictable in terms of when it’s going to occur, but it’s extremely predictable in terms of the fact that it’s going to occur. And once it starts to unfold you can describe the sequence.

Alan: You mentioned in an earlier conversation that there was some correspondence between the rise in carbon dioxide worldwide and the appearance of El Niño. Could you describe that a little bit more?

Richard: The curious thing about the increase in CO2 is that it goes up only about half as much as we put it into the atmosphere. The explanation – or hypothesis – is that about half of the cultural carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and the burning of forests goes into the ocean.

We get this by differencing – looking for all the places it could go and being left with the deep ocean as the only place where we can’t do our bookkeeping. For example, we know that it’s not going into forest biomass because satellite pictures and direct measurements tell us the amount of forest is decreasing, not increasing. We think it’s not going into soil humus because that’s also measured as decreasing. The deep waters of the ocean are the biggest reservoir of carbon dioxide, we understand that. So we hypothesize that it’s going into the ocean.

Now during the ’72 and ’76 El NIños there was an interesting discontinuity in the accumulation of CO2 – first it slowed down, then it picked back up again. This tells us that the coupling between the carbon dioxide and the ocean is pretty tight, because when we get an ocean anomaly like El Niño, it’s reflected almost immediately – within a couple of months – in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. So we get a sense that the ocean and the atmosphere are in this carbon dioxide flux together.

Then we ask what’s happening when El Niño comes: one is that upwelling is shut off, and two is that productivity is decreased. There’s less plant growth in the surface waters, and plant growth is one of the things that takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and transports it to deep waters by a process called the biological pump.

But there is also a physical pump – the upwelling brings up deep water. Deep water is rich in carbon dioxide, and it releases this to the atmosphere. One feature of the upwelling-El Niño connection is a decrease in the CO2 accumulation rate, and that decrease is probably the effect of shutting off upwelling. For a couple of months late in ’82, the annual growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually went to zero. It emphasizes the dynamic connection between the ocean and the atmosphere, and the relatively short time scale that it operates on.

Some things still aren’t clear to us, for example the time scale that the biological pump works on. Whereas circulation only brings dissolved carbon up and carries dissolved carbon down, the biological pump moves carbon in the form of particles – the bodies of small organisms – through the water.

Alan: That’s a one-way thing.

Richard: And the one way, due to gravity, is downward. So our conviction is that the overall net affect is probably set to a large degree by the biological pump.

Alan: So the health of that biological pump is something of crucial importance to regulating world CO2 levels. Is there a lot of work being done on that?

Richard: Yes, it’s being attacked by a number of oceanographers in the United States and worldwide. There is still some disagreement about the most important places to attack it. One place that we all agree on is the polar oceans because they become very rich in the summer, and the idea is that in a place that is episodically rich, like the polar oceans, there’s probably a lot of episodic sinking. The U.S. is going to do its first major experiment on this in the North Atlantic.

It’s clear to those of us who work off the west coasts of the continents that those are also important areas. In the tropical oceans these are the richest places in the world, and they are also characterized by episodic richness – big booms which come and go rapidly. That kind of boom or bust growth is also, I would hypothesize, important for transporting carbon down. One of the goals of our new institute is to look at this in the California Current very hard.

What’s interesting is that studying the influence on deep sea animals and on climate is the same thing – in one case you call it food and in the other it’s carbon being taken out of contact with the atmosphere.

Alan: So is the biological pump the principal aspect of carbon dioxide regulation being researched by oceanographers, or is it just part of a puzzle?

Richard: It’s just part of a puzzle. The other part is the physics of the circulation. There is no clear sense whether one, or the other, or both of these things are responsible for the net affect. And the net affect, remember, is that half of everything we put up there disappears.

We are curious about that, because we wonder if, as the carbon dioxide crisis grows in the next 30 years, there is going to be some surprising feedback behavior. If the ocean system should become saturated and stop sequestering half of what we put up there, the problem would get worse in a very severe way. On the other hand, if the concentration in the atmosphere tends to drive this sequestering, then the worse we make it in the atmosphere, the more the ocean does for us.

Alan: As a result of this crisis, is there greater international cooperation than there was previously?

Richard: In spirit – but in oceanography, international cooperation has always been strong. In fact, sometimes it’s been even stronger than now. In a by-gone era, it was easier to get together and say, "Let’s do this." In these more rigorous financial times, we have to plan more carefully and get a stronger consensus. But on this issue there is a very strong international consensus. Interestingly, there haven’t been any new institutes formed just for this purpose. We seem to be attacking this problem at a conceptual level, without feeling the need to build any new buildings. There’s mainly a network of interested individuals – the "think tank" is not in one place. That’s possible now because with computer communication you can talk to everybody in the United States within a couple of minutes, and it’s not important to be sitting there next to someone. In fact, there are advantages to not sitting there.

Alan: I’m curious if some of the things we’ve been talking about have anything to do with confirming or disconfirming James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. What are your thoughts on that?

Richard: When you look at the earth system, there are a couple of things that surprise you. It’s amazing that the temperature is regulated in a narrow envelope so that we have liquid water. The other planets in our solar system have either solid water in the form of ice, or they only have water vapor because they’re too hot. We operate in this very narrow window because of a global heat flux which is maintained, in part, by the gases in our atmosphere. And then we ask, why does it stay in such narrow bounds? Why doesn’t it oscillate off like Mercury or Venus? That’s a tough question to answer. As a matter of fact, when you look very hard at it and look at first principle physics and chemistry, you would predict that it would oscillate off in an irreversible way as it has on other planets.

Instead, it stays in this narrow envelope. Lovelock looked at that and said, the Earth system demonstrates a process of homeostasis that’s like what an organism does – when we’ve got plenty of water, we excrete water. When we’re low on water, we stop excreting, we stop sweating. When we’re cold, we close down our capillaries so we don’t radiate out heat. When we’re warm, we open up our capillaries. So an organism has all these negative feedback mechanisms: when a trend develops one way, the organic body exhibits characteristics that take it another way.

Now, the earth seems to do that. The Ice Ages, the glacial and interglacial periods, are a clear-cut case of that kind of process. The Gaia Hypothesis is that there is an evolved association in which the evolved part – that is, the living part – plays a regulating role. What Lovelock proposes is that the regulation of the physical conditions on planet Earth are dependent to a large extent on evolved life processes. That’s a very interesting idea.

Alan: And that ties directly into the CO2 question, because this would be an example of where the evolved life forms aren’t doing their job.

Richard: Yes. On the other hand, the evolved life forms might be delighted with a climate that is a few degrees warmer. Higher organisms like human beings may be an afterthought who do not come out too well under this hypothesis. Remember, the warmer climate of the carboniferous period had plenty of life on earth. It’s not clear whether this regulation is optimal for us.

Alan: Is the hypothesis getting serious scientific research attention?

Richard: Yes, it is, though somewhat bemused at times. Off the record, I’d say that it’s a religion that a scientist can really buy into.

Alan: Is that really off the record?

Richard: Well, actually you can print it. But it’s the first system of religious thought that is really attractive to an ecologist and oceanographer, or someone interested in earth systems science. One is very reluctant about subscribing to any religion, but this is a religion which comes right down our alley. It’s called the Gaia Hypothesis, but in my opinion it’s really the Gaia religion because I’m not sure it’s testable in its ultimate form.

Alan: Where should our readers go to get educated about oceanographic research, particularly as it relates to questions about CO2 and pollution?

Richard: The most dramatic write-ups, diagrams, proposals and hypotheses are put out by the Earth System Science Committee, which coordinates work on global change issues. If you write to them [Office for Interdisciplinary Earth Studies, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, PO Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307] and ask for information on earth system science, they will send you stuff that will blow your socks off. NASA has a similar program called Mission to Planet Earth and that is also very good stuff.

There is a little book on Gaia put out by Lovelock which I also recommend reading. You know, there’s a story about Steven Jay Gould, whose father was a Marxist. Someone asked him once about his early education, and he said that he learned his Marxism on his father’s knee. But he went on to say, "I learned it there, I didn’t believe it." I think that’s the way I would recommend approaching Gaia – I wouldn’t recommend it as a thought system. But in this day and age, no one can afford to be ignorant about what the Gaia Hypothesis is.

Alan: It’s certainly a revolutionary idea.

Richard: You know, everybody in my business views the revolution as having occurred when the satellite went up, and we looked back at Earth and it was all one system. The second revolutionary element is the fact that these are big data jobs, and you can only deal with them when you’ve got the biggest computers at your side. You couldn’t approach these problems in the mid-70s – we were stressing out the computers on our coastal upwelling work, pushing the limit on the biggest computers in the country. And we were only looking at one part of one system.

Alan: So the Gaia Hypothesis could be looked at as the mystical arm of this revolutionary change in perspective.

Richard: Yes. The originator of Gaia is a physicist and inventor who has a real foot in the technological world as well as in the philosophical world. You could also look at this hypothesis as the fruit that grew from both of these fundamentally new perspectives.

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