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El Nino Offers Clues To California's Future Under Climate Change


El Nino did not bring the monster rains we here in California were praying for, rains we had hoped would bring some relief for our long drought. But El Nino was not a total bust. As Sanden Totten from member station KPCC reports, researchers think they've gotten a glimpse into California's future under climate change.

SANDEN TOTTEN, BYLINE: In the middle of Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, there's a lagoon. And in that lagoon, there's a boat with two scientists and one unexpected guest.


TOTTEN: He's in the boat. Octopus on the loose in the boat.

This purple octopus is about the size of a football and sliding around on the deck.

MCATEE: You're very fast, aren't you?

TOTTEN: That's Cal State Long Beach grad student Kaelin McAtee trying to scoop it up with a paddle. This little adventure started way back last summer when forecasters were predicting a record-breaking El Nino winter in California, full of rains, floods and high tides. We didn't get the rain. But tides were high, leading to floods and erosion. The water was also a few degrees warmer than usual. Researcher Sarah Giddings of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography says these El Nino side effects might be the new normal in 50 years as climate change kicks in.

SARAH GIDDINGS: We've been sort of coining it as a window into future conditions.

TOTTEN: That's because greenhouse gases are expected to heat up the ocean and melt ice caps, pushing sea levels higher. Giddings says scientists around the region are using this El Nino as a case study for that future.

GIDDINGS: We've got folks looking at the ocean temperatures, erosion on our beaches. We have people studying the cliffs in California.

TOTTEN: Which brings us back to that boat on the lagoon in Long Beach and the stowaway octopus.

MCATEE: Should I pick him up?

TOTTEN: The animal was attached to some underwater equipment used to test temperatures in the lagoon for an El Nino study. When Kaelin McAtee pulled the gear into the boat, the octopus came with it. Eventually, she gets it back into the water.


MCATEE: Bye, buddy.

TOTTEN: This Long Beach lagoon is a coastal wetland smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Leading this expedition is professor Christine Whitcraft. She says wetlands are nature's answer to high tides since they're full of plants that slow waves and porous soil that soaks up water.

CHRISTINE WHITCRAFT: They have the ability to buffer storms, to protect from flooding, to slow down water flow. And all of those are going to help in these conditions we predict to occur with climate change.

TOTTEN: In fact, last winter, this lagoon protected the neighborhood from flooding during El Nino-driven high tides. She's hoping to learn how the lagoon managed that so she can advise coastal towns about the best ways to restore and conserve their wetlands as a shield against rising sea levels. Other scientists, like UCLA student Denita Toneva, are hoping to learn how climate change might affect animals. She's wading through a tide pool on the coast near LA in search of sea urchins.

DENITA TONEVA: Like, I would think that that whole pool right there would have been filled with urchins earlier.

TOTTEN: Toneva says just a few months back, these prickly, purple creatures were everywhere, choking out other species.

TONEVA: Yeah. Now, there's two per square meter, so...

TOTTEN: Toneva and her team are tracking the temperature and acidity of the water to see if that played a role. She says El Nino may have solved the problem of too many urchins for now.

TONEVA: There's going to be good and bad consequences. And so the question is - what are they? And how can we kind of utilize whatever is necessary to maintain diversity?

TOTTEN: This El Nino is wrapping up and so is most of the field research into its effects. Now scientists are studying the data in hopes that somewhere buried in the graphs and charts are clues about how to adapt to an uncertain future under climate change. For NPR News, I'm Sanden Totten in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.