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El Nino forecasting could aid fisheries management, disease control, marine species protection


Although predicting el Nino events months before they begin has become a major success story in climate prediction, a Duke University oceanographer who did early research in the field believes more could be done with the computer and satellite technology underlying these advances.

Richard Barber, who is Harvey W. Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, will outline additional uses of el Nino forecasting at an 8:30 a.m. Feb. 20 symposium during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2005 annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The additional uses he will discuss include managing fisheries, controlling outbreaks of tropical disease and protecting marine mammals and other ocean species.

That symposium will be held in the Palladian Room on the lobby level of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

El Nino gets its name from periodic changes in ocean currents that disrupt anchovy fishing off Peru around Christmastime. This worldwide alteration of the normal monsoon cycle changes wind and ocean temperature patterns in ways that lead to flooding in parts of the Americas, droughts in Australia , Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, and a tempering of the North Atlantic hurricane season.

Barber was part of an early multidisciplinary research effort called Coastal Upwelling Ecosystems Analysis that in 1971 began using scientific modeling to analyze the biological and physical changes behind what is more properly called the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

However, it took more than a decade, after 1983, before advances in supercomputing power and satellite technology allowed ENSO forecasting to "become one of the greatest success stories in American science," Barber said in an interview.

"With a small number of sensors we can now forecast what is going to happen with an ENSO nine months in advance with a great degree of certainty," he said. "However, we may not have a good idea about how strong the ENSO is going to be until six months before.

"These forecasts are now used and watched by politicians and bankers and commodity traders and all kinds of other people," Barber added. But he contends that the predictive powers of ENSO forecasting are still not being harnessed in three important areas.

For one, these reliable early alerts could be used to better manage high yield fisheries that are subject to "boom and bust" cycles -- such as those for anchovies, sardines and mackerel, he said.

ENSO forecasting could also be used to better control outbreaks of tropical diseases such as mosquito-caused malaria, he added. "It is possible to give the World Health Organization a nine-month, if not a 12-month, forecast of where excess rains are going to be in the tropics so they can pre-deploy their resources."

Finally, scientists could use the latest technological tools to assess how ENSO-caused changes in the dynamics of the oceans are likely to relocate nutrient-rich feeding zones where over-exploited or threatened marine mammals, fish and turtles are most apt to congregate.

Regulators could then prejudge where existing fishing grounds should be closed, and whether fishermen could be productively directed to alternatives sites, Barber suggested. And naval ships planning sonar exercises could avoid maneuvering in range of vulnerable marine mammals.

Barber’s talk will be delivered at a symposium entitled "Biological Perturbations in the Melting World’s Oceans: Impacts of Climate Change." However he says the periodic alterations of weather patterns during ENSO events actually "fit in with climate variability, not with climate change."

Monte Basgall | EurekAlert!
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