ENSO Conditions and Coral Bleaching



As of May 12, 2022, the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Prediction's (NCEP) El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Alert System status remains at La Niña Advisory. Below-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) persisted during April 2022 across most of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Over the past month, the Niño index values decreased, with the latest weekly values ranging from -1.1°C to -1.5°C, which are quite negative for this time of year. Subsurface temperature anomalies (averaged between 180°-100°W and 0-300m depth) remained negative, reflecting an extensive area of below-average temperatures from the surface to ~100m depth across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. For the monthly average, low-level easterly and upper-level westerly wind anomalies dominated the equatorial Pacific. Convection remained significantly suppressed around the International Date Line and was enhanced over the Philippines. Overall, the coupled ocean-atmosphere system reflected the continuation of La Niña.

The most recent IRI/CPC plume average for the Niño-3.4 SST index forecasts borderline La Niña conditions during Northern Hemisphere summer, with increasing odds for La Niña into autumn. Similar to last month, the forecaster consensus predicts Niño-3.4 index values to weaken into the summer, but remain below the threshold of La Niña (Niño-3.4 values equal to or less than -0.5°C). In the near-term, westerly wind anomalies are predicted for mid- to late-May, which supports the weakening of below-average surface and subsurface oceanic temperatures in the coming months. However, much of the model guidance is also hinting at a re-strengthening of La Niña conditions again in autumn and the upcoming winter. In summary, though La Niña is favored to continue, the odds decrease into late Northern Hemisphere summer (58% chance in August-October 2022), before slightly increasing through Northern Hemisphere autumn and early winter (61% chance).

 

This next figure on the left, published April 19, 2022, shows forecasts, made by a set of dynamical and statistical models for SST in the Niño-3.4 region, for nine overlapping three-month periods. The majority of the model forecasts issued in mid-April 2022 indicate below-normal SST anomalies in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and a continuation of the current La Niña event until May-July 2022. The odds are near-equal for a continuation of the weak La Niña, or a transition to ENSO-neutral afterwards, indicating a large uncertainty in the current forecast.



 

 








As of this initial writing, with the 2015 El Niño continuing to develop and intensify in the Northern Hemisphere, the following is a brief overview of the pattern and timing of heat stress that resulted in widespread severe coral bleaching during 1997-1999. Past reports have estimated that over 15% of the world's coral reefs were effectively lost during the 1997-1999 period (Wilkinson 2000). At that time, NOAA Coral Reef Watch observed widespread, prolonged high temperatures that caused coral bleaching. This was associated with what has been argued to be the largest El Niño on record (1997-1998) followed immediately by a strong La Niña (1998-1999). In general, many areas that are untouched by warming during an El Niño are influenced by warming during a La Niña (see Eakin et al. 2009).

 
   
In short, several areas of the tropical oceans experienced thermal stress sufficient for coral bleaching with impacts covering a 14-month period (May 1997-June 1998). Reefs in the central Pacific and eastern tropical Pacific were exposed to thermal stress early after the onset of the El Niño. Thermal stress moved to the Great Barrier Reef and across the islands of the south Pacific during February-April 1998 and the Indian Ocean during March-June 1998. In the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the worst of the El Niño impacts with the highest thermal exposure culminated in July-October 1998. The mid-1998 onset of La Niña conditions resulted in thermal stress in the northwestern Pacific Ocean from July-October 1998.

The following discussion uses the NOAA Coral Reef Watch SST Anomaly and Bleaching Alert Area products to illustrate the events. The Bleaching Alert Area shows patterns of areas with accumulated thermal stress sufficient to cause coral bleaching. The patterns are a bit different, and more coral-focused, than those visible in the SST Anomaly data. More on these products can be found at: https://coralreefwatch.noaa.gov/satellite/index.php.


1997:

The classical El Niño warming pattern formed by May 1997, with initiation of SST warming from the central tropical Pacific eastward to the South American coastline. Prolonged thermal stress with the potential to cause bleaching was seen along the equator, from Howland and Baker Islands east to the Galapagos and the Ecuadorian coastline, during the remainder of 1997. During this time, warming also proceeded northward along the South American coast to Panama. Additionally, warming was seen reaching northeast to Mexico, and some warming was seen along the Central American Coastline. Limited warming was seen in the Caribbean.  

   
 
     


1998:

By early 1998, the classic El Niño pattern was fully developed, with broader areas of high temperature in the eastern Tropical Pacific and extending up the Central American coast past Costa Rica, including all of the eastern Tropical Pacific islands; high temperatures in these regions began to dissipate in June. Bleaching levels of warming were seen along the Great Barrier Reef in February-March. Warming also began in the eastern to central Indian Ocean south of the equator, spreading to the eastern Indian Ocean by March, and dissipating after May.  

   
 
   
 
   

In May and June, bleaching levels of warming were also seen across the Indian Ocean north of the equator and into Southeast Asia.
 
     
 
     
With the rapid onset of La Niña conditions in July 1998, warming was observed in the western Pacific Ocean, north of the equator. August-September saw warming in the South China Sea, Philippines, and the Ryukyu Islands, which spread southeastward through Palau and Micronesia, finally dissipating in November.  
     


Fig. 4.9. Significantly (at 5% level) warmer (red) or cooler (blue) annual maximum SST difference: a El Niño year t, b El Niño year t+1, c La Niña year t, and d La Niña year t+1. Average values calculated for 20 El Niño events and 20 La Niña events, and tested for significant differences from 20 ENSO-neutral years. The groups of years were identified from the Troup (1965) SOI updated by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.




Bleaching warming in the Western Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean is most commonly seen in the year after the onset of an El Niño (see figure on left from Eakin et al. 2009).

























The bleaching warming started to develop in July 1998 and peaked in the Gulf of Mexico in August and in the Caribbean Sea in October.  
     
 
   
 
   
 
     


1999:

By 1999, the worst of the thermal stress was over, from a coral bleaching perspective, but only after major losses of coral reefs worldwide in 1998. Some warming was seen along the Great Barrier Reef in early 1999 but was much weaker than the prior year. Conditions were rather quiescent until August, when warming of the western North Pacific led to low bleaching levels of thermal stress that reached down to the Mariana Islands. Warming was again seen in the Caribbean in August-September 1999 but to a lesser extent than in 1998.



References

Eakin CM, Lough JM, and Heron SF (2009) Climate Variability and Change: Monitoring Data and Evidence for Increased Coral Bleaching Stress. In Coral Bleaching, vanOppen MJH and Lough JM eds. Ecological Studies 205: 41-67, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

Wilkinson CR (2000) Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2000. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Australia 363pp.


For more information, please contact coralreefwatch@noaa.gov


Disclaimer

The content posted on this web page solely represents the opinions of the authors and does not constitute a statement of policy, decision, or position on behalf of NOAA or the US Government.

The appearance of external links on this World Wide Web site does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Commerce/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of external Web sites or the information, products or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities, the Department of Commerce/NOAA does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. These links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this Department of Commerce/NOAA Web site.