Project planning with “Godzilla”

Nov 10, 2015
The impacts of El Niño are being felt in the Amazon Forest outside Manaus, Brazil. At the time of this photo, it was more than 3 weeks
 without rain. Photo courtesy of Jeff Warren.  

The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments–Tropics (NGEE-Tropics or NGEE-T) project, initiated to answer critical questions related to tropical forests and improve climate models, kicked off in March 2015. Phase 1 (March 2015 to March 2017) was barely under way when team members realized they might be facing a major climatic event—what Rich Norby, team lead for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) NGEE-T effort, says has been dubbed the “Godzilla El Niño.”

El Niño, more accurately, the El Niño Southern Oscillation, is a periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that can disrupt typical weather patterns worldwide. It tends to cause wetter than normal conditions in some areas (usually the northern hemisphere) and hotter, drier than normal conditions in others (usually the tropics), with potentially disastrous consequences. Past El Niños have been blamed for everything from malaria outbreaks to civil conflicts to the collapse of fisheries and even whole civilizations.

Various weather monitoring organizations and organizations that track extreme weather events worldwide (e.g., the International Center for the Study of El Nino) say all the signs indicate this year’s El Niño could be one of the strongest on record. According to Norby, it’s already causing severe drought in a lot of places in the tropics, including some of the NGEE-T pilot sites, and we’re not even in the middle of the El Niño yet. Another ominous sign—the second week in October the (US) National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño advisory.

Sea Surface Temperatures. Arrows frame the ribbon
of abnormally warm water in the central and eastern equatorial
Pacific Ocean on Aug. 31, 2015, signaling the early stages
of the ongoing El Niño. Source:  NOAA.

Jeff Warren, an ORNL Climate Change Science Institute environmental scientist focused on the hydrological aspects of NGEE-T, including drought, says “Obviously, there have been big droughts in the past, and other El Niños, but here is one that we can actually study. And in the context of an NGEE project that is 10 years long, this may be the biggest drought we have.” Once it became obvious that a strong El Nino was developing and would impact Phase 1 studies, the main objective for Phase 1 planners became a concerted effort to “catch” the El Niño by getting equipment in the field as soon as possible, no easy task when multiple sites in multiple countries are involved. Some planned measurements could be put off until later, Warren says, but others—like soil-water content, transpiration rates, wilting and leaf loss, shrinking of trees in response to drought—couldn’t be put off if they were going to “take advantage” of the El Nino conditions.

After the drought passes, Norby, Warren, and the team will continue monitoring some of the Phase 1 sites, and based on this rapid exercise in response to El Niño, they’ll be able to refine techniques, strategies, and logistics to develop a measurement package to take global in Phase 2. Norby says that a strong component of all NGEE research is modeling and therefore, even as team members are moving to get equipment in the field as quickly as possible, the modeling element is being used to guide them and will be used to interpret project data.

The NGEE-Tropics project is supported by the US Department of Energy Office of Science and is led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For more information, contact Rich Norby.

by VJ Ewing.