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Little rain, but El Niño brings deluge of data for local scientists

This winter’s El Niño may have been a dud rain-wise. Southern California saw less than half the precipitation it normally gets despite predictions of a conveyor belt of storms pummeling the region.

Still, the phenomenon did bring warmer than average ocean temperatures and some extremely high tides. And that was a big silver lining for scientists hoping to learn more about how climate change is expected to affect coastal areas in the future. 

Over the past few months, researchers spent days surveying beaches, wetlands and tide pools to see how warmer, rising seas affect ecosystems and coastal communities.

"It’s incredibly useful for thinking about our future" said Sarah Giddings, a researcher with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

For much of the winter, water along the coastline was about 20 centimeters higher than average, leading to erosion and even flooding, Giddings explained.

Those high levels are largely due to the fact that water molecules in the ocean expand as temperatures rise. In fact, water off the Southern California coast was about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer average for much of the winter.

Climate change is expected to create similar conditions, as green house gases heat up the planet and ice caps melt, pushing sea levels higher. Giddings said scientists around the region used this winter’s El Niño as a case study for things to come. 

"There are scientists here working on almost every aspect of this problem you can imagine," she said.

That includes teams looking at weather patterns, ocean temperatures, water circulation, and coastal erosion.

Cal State Long Beach researcher Christine Whitcraft is studying how El Niño is affecting wetlands around Southern California.

She's been monitoring the Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach, a peaceful body of water smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It’s full of plants and animals like fish and octopus. It's also sitting on muddy, porous soil that helps to absorb high tides.

"[Wetlands] 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 with climate change," Whitcraft explained.

This winter, El Niño put this wetland to the test. One storm sent waves around twenty feet past the usual waterline, but Whitcraft said the lagoon did its job, and no homes reported flooding.

By studying wetlands during high tide conditions, Whitcraft and others hope to gain a better sense of how these areas might help mitigate the effects of rising sea levels.

Other scientists, like UCLA environmental science student Denita Toneva, are hoping to learn how climate change might impact plant and animal life. She's been monitoring sea urchins in tide pools around Palos Verdes.

Just a few months back, these prickly purple porcupines of the sea were overrunning the area and choking out other animals, she explained.  They don’t have many predators left due to hunting, fishing and disease.

However, when El Niño arrived late last year, the urchins nearly vanished.

"I would think that that whole pool right there would have been filled with urchins earlier," she said motioning to a mostly empty spot of water.

"Now there’s two per square meter."

Toneva and her team are tracking the temperature and acidity of the water to see if that played a role in the urchin's die-off. Either way, she says El Niño solved the problem of too many urchins and climate change might do the same, but at what cost?

"There’s going to be good and bad consequences and so the question is what are they?" Toneva said.

As this El Niño pattern winds down, so is most of the field research into its effects. Soon, scientists will study the data to find out what it all means, hoping that the numbers, graphs and spreadsheets will give clues about how to adapt to a future of rising seas.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. KPCC regrets the error.