Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cooking corals on Christmas Island

Bay of Wrecks, windward side, 30ft depth. Photo of newly-dead, algae-covered Acropora coral (brown-green fuzzy plates), bleached and partially-bleached Porites (white and yellow-white nubbly massive-type corals), bleached Montipora (white fungus-looking coral in lower left of photo), and partially-bleached Pocillopora (white-tipped branching corals). Photo by Pamela Grothe.
by Kim Cobb

On this remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, corals are being put to the test of their lives as water temperatures soar to a staggering 31C (88F). The current El Niño event is responsible for the large-scale warming across the equatorial Pacific, but water temperatures have been above the threshold for coral bleaching at this site for months now. Worst of all, waters will remain far above average for the next 1-2 months, before returning to near-normal values by spring 2016.  

The last time water temperatures reached such levels was during the 1997/98 El Niño event – the largest El Niño event on record. Presumably the reef at Christmas Island was devastated by widespread bleaching and mortality, but nobody was around to document the effects. As it happens, I snorkeled the reefs at Christmas during November 1997 as a baby graduate student, but didn’t think to take photos or make any systematic observations at the time.

Over the last week, our field team has been systematically documenting the status of the many different types of coral reefs on Christmas Island. In close collaboration with Dr. Julia Baum (U. Victoria) – a marine ecologist by training – we have taken hundreds of photos along preset transects that she and her students have been surveying for the last 7 years. Such baseline data are critical to understanding how this off-scale thermal stress event has impacted the reef. And up until July, 2015, her field teams had documented thriving reef communities all around Christmas Island. This July, they observed the beginnings of the current bleaching event, with some species showing widespread bleaching but little mortality.

This time, the underwater damage is jaw-dropping. It is hard to describe the gut punch that I took when I first witnessed the devastation on the remote windward reefs. Here, entire species of coral, such as Acropora, were already coated in brown-green algae, pushed far beyond the point of bleaching many weeks ago. Others, such as Favia, were 100% bleached, with some algae-coated colonies having lost their months-long battle against the warm waters. Consistently, we observed Porites and Pocillopora in various states of bleaching. For Pocillopora, every colony showed bleaching at the tips of its stocky branches, but very few were completely bleached. While some Porites colonies were completely bleached, a Porites colony only a few meters away may have only exhibited mild paling. We did not see any dead Porites colonies – at least not yet. This genus is particularly important to my lab’s work, as we use Porites colonies to reconstruct El Niño events for the last 7,000 years, calibrating our reconstructions with colonies growing on the reef today. Ecologically, it is one of the more resistant species to bleaching, so its resilience to the current thermal stress event is a key benchmark of reef health. I would estimate total coral bleaching and/or death at 50-90% (very site-dependent).

We will be returning to Christmas Island in March 2016 with the Baum team, at the tail end of the current El Niño event, to document the maximum extent of bleaching and mortality. Judging by how much the reefs have deteriorated from July to November, the next four months may well witness near-100% mortality for most of the Christmas Island coral reefs.

Our latest field observations confirm our fears – that the current bleaching event will reshape the reefs at Christmas Island for years to come. Monster El Niño events are nothing new to Christmas, as recorded in the geochemical variations of centuries-old coral skeletons from my lab’s work, but the rapid succession of very strong El Niño events in the last decades stands out against the backdrop of natural variability in our records. For the reefs at Christmas Island, the 2015/2016 El Niño event may be a tiding of things to come under continued anthropogenic climate change. If so, then the current event represents a golden opportunity to study if and how this reef is fundamentally (and possibly permanently) altered under acute thermal stress. After all, while we cannot stop the ravaging effects of the current El Niño on coral reef ecosystems across the Pacific, we can certainly learn some key lessons from it. It isn’t far-fetched to think that one day, such lessons may provide the blueprint for engineering the resilience of corals reefs to climate change.

Below are some of the photos from the last week's expedition. UPDATE:  A special thanks to Danielle Claar (U. Victoria) for helping to identify the species in these photos.
South Side, 30ft depth. This was the healthiest site we saw. 100% bleached Hydophora microcons beginning to die (brown cap on pure white, spherical colonies in foreground), nearly 100% bleached Porites (white nubby mass in center of image), and partially-bleached Porites (pale yellow nubby mass in lower left of photo), and severely bleached Pocillopora (white-tipped branching coral to the far right of photo). Photo by Kim Cobb.

South Side, 30ft depth. 100% bleached and some dying Hydnophora, Favia, and Favites corals (white, round colonies w/ brown caps), partially-bleached and some dead Pocillopora (white-tipped branching corals), 100% bleached Montipora (white fungus-like fans), and dead Favia corals (round, brown, smallish corals - hard to see here). Photo by Kim Cobb.

Bay of Wrecks, 30ft depth. Photo shows dead Acropora colonies (brown-green fuzzy plates in left half of photo), 100% bleached Porites colony (large white nubbly coral), and numerous partially bleached Pocillopora colonies (white-tipped branching corals). Photo by Pamela Grothe.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Into the El Niño sauna

by Kim Cobb

I’ve been waiting 18 years for this moment.

You see, I study the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (some would say I’m obsessed with it), and this is the largest El Niño event since 1997/98, which itself was the largest El Niño on record. During that event, I was a beginning graduate student on a large research cruise to Christmas Island. I had no context for the conditions I was witnessing at the time – the white corals, the huge swells on the leeward side, the constant rain. Nobody on the cruise fully grasped the magnitude of the event that would peak that very month.

Fast-forward 18 years, and I am leading the first of several field expeditions designed to document the effects of this massive El Niño event on the coral reefs I’ve been studying for my entire career. The event itself will be gone in the blink of an eye, but its effects on coral reef ecosystems will likely last a decade or more.

At 2N, 157W, Christmas Island lies at the epicenter of the current El Niño event. NOAA has sounded the alarm on a global coral bleaching event that is currently underway, and Christmas Island has been under an Alert Level 2 (indicative of “Mortality Likely”) for the last three months (Figure 1). With ocean temperatures projected to remain warm over the next 1-2 months before cooling into the spring, most of the corals here will likely bleach. When corals lose their colorful, symbiotic algae, they lose a critical source of energy and become much more vulnerable to disease and infection. If bleaching lasts for more than a few months, corals are unlikely to survive the episode. In 1997/98, I witnessed widespread bleaching and mortality – although nobody was around to do an official survey. And over the last 18 years, I’ve watched the reefs recover, slowly but steadily.  
Figure 1. Map of coral bleaching projections for the last week, from NOAA Coral Reef Watch, showing a high likelihood for bleaching at Christmas Island.
In my lab, we use geochemical variations locked in coral skeletons from Christmas Island to reconstruct a history of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability over the last centuries to millennia. Our lab’s data show that recent ENSO variability is significantly stronger than ENSO variability over the last 7,000 years, indicating that greenhouse gases may be driving an intensification in ENSO extremes (see related publication here). But what happens when the archive I rely on to study past El Niño events is threatened by a very strong El Niño event? I don’t know, but this winter, I intend to find out.

Ever since spring 2014, I’ve been waiting for the fledgling El Niño event to take shape. In late August of this year, after a decisive push from the atmosphere in the right direction, the breath-holding gave way to a flurry of preparations for the upcoming field season. Over the course of three planned expeditions, my lab’s resources, and those of my collaborators, will be stretched to the very limit (and beyond, in some cases).

Our mission for the current trip is multi-fold, and incredibly ambitious.

Our top priority is to service and/or install a wide variety of environmental logging devices, including a high-end weather station, as well as ocean temperature and salinity loggers, some of which were installed in Summer 2014. We will collect hundreds of rainwater and seawater samples to document how this event has changed the geochemical and isotopic properties of the environmental waters - changes that the corals record in their skeletons and that we rely on to document past El Niño events. With this trove of data, we hope to quantify how the physical and chemical environment changed before, during, and after the event.

Our second objective is to document the health of the coral reefs on Christmas Island by systematically photographing transects of corals previously photographed by our collaborator Julia Baum and her students on previous expeditions to the island. When her team was here in July 2015, her graduate student Danielle Claar photographed a variety of bleached corals, estimating total bleaching at roughly 30% (Figure 2). We expect much more extensive bleaching this time around, as ocean temperatures have only increased since that time.
A bleaching Acropora colony in upper left, along with fully bleached Pocillopora colonies, in July 2015. Photo taken by Danielle Claar.
The field team includes my new NOAA Postdoctoral Fellow Alyssa Atwood, my graduate student Pamela Grothe (a seasoned Christmas Island expeditioner), and long-time undergraduate researcher Shellby Miller. Yes, this is an all-female research team!
From left:  Pamela Grothe, Kim Cobb, Alyssa Atwood, and Shellby Miller.
Stay tuned for updates from the field (internet permitting - I blame the unusually slow internet on El Niño, of course).

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Climate change and the under-10 crowd

My 8-yr-old daughter brought home her first science textbook from school yesterday, thrilled to show it off and slowly peruse its many full-color images. She knew she'd have a rapt audience in her scientist mom. Without thinking, I flipped to the table of contents and scanned the "Earth Science" section for any mention of climate change. Nothing.
My daughter, impressed that they named a
certain brand of scientific tissues after me.

"Wow," I said. "There is nothing about climate change in here."

"Of course not, Mom. That is way too advanced for third grade," she replied.

"No, it's not! It's very basic stuff. If you can learn about fossils, and phase changes, then you can learn about climate change."

"Anyway, I already know about it."

"Yeah, but we need all your classmates to learn about it too, because we need everyone to do what they can to stop climate change. It's not enough if just a few people decide to do things differently."

"What will happen if they don't decide to do things differently?"

"Well, we're going to trash the one planet we have."

"We don't just have one planet. Eventually we'll just move to another planet, if it gets too bad on Earth. You probably won't be alive by then. But we'll go - it's not our fault anyway, that the planet got trashed."

[me in a rare speechless moment]

"But in the meantime we should try to save our planet. Mom, are you trying to save the planet?"

"Yes. . ." [brain whirring with the reality that so much of my job is not about saving the planet, not directly at least; the whirring hasn't stopped]

"I'm going to make sure that my kids try to save the planet too. Mom, would you be proud of me if I spent my life trying to save the planet?"

"Yes, I would. Very."

Aside from the obvious set of personal reflections stimulated by this exchange, it spurred me to dig a little deeper into the K-12 Georgia Science Standards. As it turns out, the only mention of climate change comes in the optional high school Oceanography course standards:

"Explain relationships between climate change, the greenhouse effect, and the consequences of global warming on the ocean."

Georgia's approach is woefully out of step with the recommendations by the National Academy of Science, who published "A Framework for K-12 Science Education", featuring the following climate change standards for Grade 5:

"If Earth’s global mean temperature continues to rise, the lives of humans and other organisms will be affected in many different ways."

with much more in-depth benchmarks for Grade 8 and Grade 12, all detailed in a dedicated section on "Global Climate Change".

So, that leaves a big role for climate scientists in states like Georgia, who can supplement the outdated science curriculum with activities such as the one I designed for my daughter's school last year (slides here, pink balloon props not included).

So while my daughter's generation may not have caused the problem, they will have to be part of the solution, and I'd like to think that does not involve extended space travel. Let's equip young people with the tools and information to be optimistic and engaged, in the same breath that we tell them about the magnitude of the climate change threat.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Cobb lab research at AGU Fall Meeting, 2014

The Cobb lab is well-represented at #AGU2014, with myself, Jessica Moerman, and Pamela Grothe all presenting various aspects of our paleoclimate research. There are also many Cobb lab alumni and affiliates here (see below). 

Below is a list detailing when and where Cobb lab research will be featured:

Me:  "What did the largest volcanic eruption in 2 million years do to
 climate? Stalagmites weigh in."

PP31B-1131Signatures of the Toba super-volcano eruption in Borneo stalagmite geochemistry: a multi-proxy approach (ABSTRACT)
Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall

*Prospective postdocs and grad students are encouraged to meet me at this poster session PP31B on Wed morning between 8-11am in Moscone West.

**Don't miss the Monday 7:30pm screening of Years of Living Dangerously, Episode 3, featuring yours truly in MW 3002. A post-screening panel will feature myself, Chris Mooney (science writer), Joseph Romm, Heidi Cullen (science advisor, Years), and David Gelber (Executive Producer, Years).

Jessica Moerman:  "What do water isotopes really tell us about climate? And why?"

  • PP31D-1171The role of remote versus local climatic influences in shaping seasonal to interannual rainfall isotopic variations in northern Borneo (ABSTRACT)
  • Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 Moscone West Poster Hall

Jessica will also convene the following session:
  • PP31DWater Isotope Systematics: Improving Paleoclimate Interpretations I, II, and III
  • Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20  Moscone West Poster Hall
    Wednesday, December 17, 201401:40 PM - 03:40 PM Moscone West 2008
    Wednesday, December 17, 201404:00 PM - 06:00 PM  Moscone West 2008

Pamela Grothe "How can we date 10 times more coral samples at 10 times less cost? And can you trust the resulting dates?"
  • PP41D-1428A Comparison of Rapid-Screen 14C Dates and U/Th Dates from Fossil Corals: Implications for Paleoclimate Reconstruction (ABSTRACT)
  • Thursday, December 18, 2014, Moscone West-Poster Hall

Link to Pam's poster here.

Here are the appearances of Cobb lab alumni and/or close affiliates:

Bronwen Konecky (currently jointly advised NSF-AGS postdoc fellow)
Multiproxy Records of Indo-Pacific Climate and Environmental Change from Lake Towuti, Indonesia, Since 60 Kyr BP (ABSTRACT)
Wednesday, December 17, 2014 , Moscone West-2010

ENSO and Indo-Pacific Water Isotopes: Observations, Modeling, and Implications for Proxy Reconstructions (ABSTRACT)

Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM  Moscone West Poster Hall


Samantha Stevenson (currently jointly advised NSF-OCE postdoc fellow)

  • PP33A-1210Evaluating the ENSO Impact on Last Millennium Megadroughts Using Improved Coral Forward Models (ABSTRACT)
    • Wednesday, December 17, 201401:40 PM - 06:00 PM Moscone West Poster Hall


Jessica Conroy (former postdoc, currently Asst. Prof. U. Illinois)
  • PP31D-1167Paired Vapor-Precipitation Isotope Data from Manus, Papua New Guinea (ABSTRACT)

Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall

  • PP34A-01A 2000-year high-resolution lacustrine record of El Niño Southern Oscillation from the center of the Eastern Equatorial Pacific region (Genovesa crater lake, Galapagos Islands) (ABSTRACT)
  • Wednesday, December 17, 201404:00 PM - 04:15 PM Moscone West 2010


Julien Emile-Geay (former postdoc, currently Asst. Prof, Univ. Southern California)
PP44B-01The Paleoclimate Uncertainty Cascade: Tracking Proxy Errors Via Proxy System Models. (ABSTRACT)


Julien will also be hosting a multi-session extravaganza on climate of the last millennia:
  • PP21EClimate of the Common Era I
  • Se
    Tuesday, December 16, 201408:00 AM - 10:00 AM Moscone West 2008

  • --------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Jud Partin (former PhD student, currently Research Scientist at UT-Austin)
    • A11B-3023Varied Spatial Response of the SPCZ on Multi-decadal Timescales over the past 500 Years (ABSTRACT)
    • Monday, December 15, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall


    Nele Meckler (fellow Mulu stalagmite addict and field buddy, currently at U. Bergen)
    • PP31B-1130Comparison of temperature proxies in tropical stalagmites (ABSTRACT)
    • Wednesday, December 17, 201408:00 AM - 12:20 PM Moscone West Poster Hall

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We're live-blogging from the field!

Cobb lab folk are now on Christmas Island, in the middle of the Pacific, conducting their paleoclimate research. We will be blogging at elnino2014.blogspot.com, the dedicated blog for the larger expedition effort, which includes four other PIs. Please follow our activities there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is 'outreach' a dirty word in academia?

On August 9th I found myself sitting in a courtyard at Google's Palo Alto campus, leading an animated discussion about "outreach" with a broad cross-section of geeky, articulate science types.
Enjoying some adult beverages at the Googleplex

It was my first Science Foo Camp ("Scifoo" for short) -- an invitation-only event sponsored by Google, O'Reilly Media, Digital Science, and the Nature Publishing Group. There were 250 invitees from around the world, ranging from academic scientists like me to science writers, foundation representatives, science artists, even science comedians and a science magician (perhaps my favorite). It felt like a brain vacation. I let my brain "play" all weekend long, while my body enjoyed delicious and abundant food and drink.

The campers themselves set the agenda for the meeting, by proposing sessions on over-sized post-its tacked to a huge schedule board (see pic). While there were a few serious topics, including a great session on "Reproducibility in Science", most were creative spin-offs on attendees' professional
A schedule board at SciFoo14
interests, such as "Beyonce and Science" or "De-extinction:  should we bring extinct things back to life?" or "What happens in the last 3 minutes before Singularity?" or "Find deep friendships (and love?) in 45 minutes" (which I missed, because, ironically, I was deep in conversation with a new acquaintance - but see this article to get an idea of the approach).

I was nervous proposing a session entitled "Why is 'outreach' a dirty word in science academia? and How can we change this?", but felt like I might get some creative solutions out of this crowd. You see, scientists are rewarded by the numbers of papers (and numbers of citations, at enlightened institutions) and the amount of external funding they receive. They are not rewarded for time and effort spent communicating science to the public, working with K-12 teachers, meeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill, blogging about science, etc. So why "waste" your time? At worst, I expected to receive a few sympathetic pats on the back from similarly tortured souls who, like me, are committed to 'outreach' despite clear disincentives. [I wrote a previous post outlining these disincentives, for those that want more detail.]

To my delight, the session drew 20+ enthusiastic participants, ranging from graduate students to TV science personalities to academic scientists to professional science writers. The first order of business was to dispense with the term "outreach" in favor of "engagement"-- signaling a movement away from the model whereby the Ivory Tower dispenses Knowledge to the ignorant masses, and towards a model defined by sustained conversations (by definition bi-directional) about the wonder and value of science and its applicability in our everyday lives. These days, "engagement" is embodied in ambitious citizen-science programs like PaleoQuest's Sharkfinder initiative, whereby folks can hunt for fossil fish teeth in unsorted sands (my 7-yr-old daughter was ecstatic to find a 3mm-long tooth in her kit last night.)

Attendees shared inspiring stories of how they had channeled their personal passion for public engagement into reality, and even, in some cases, institutional change. There was Dr. Sarah Imari Walker, an Asst. Prof. at ASU who had co-founded SAGANet.org (Social Action for a Grassroots Astrobiology Network), an e-community made of scientists and interested members of the public. All-but-doctored Asha Devos heavily leverages her blue whale research in some high-profile public engagement activities. Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, who had served as the President's Senior Advisor on Science Engagement at U. Toronto for two years, emphasized the need for public engagement training of both students and faculty, supported by institutional resources. I was especially intrigued by the UK's Wellcome Trust, who have dedicated some of their funding exclusively to public engagement activities, awarded competitively as supplements to funded research grants. They even have a whole page dedicated to public engagement! This is quite different from the NSF model, wherein "Broader Impacts" scores are considered in ranking a proposal's merit. While some researchers pursue such activities in earnest, the vast majority pay lip service to NSF's goals for its Broader Impacts. For example, many simply vow to incorporate their research into their undergraduate classes. Gee thanks -- nothing says "taxpayer value" quite like putting 20 undergrads to sleep with the technical details of your research.

We all agreed that while public engagement is not for everyone, those who choose to do it should be given the resources to do it effectively, and rewarded for their successes. Every university has an Office of Communications or Public Relations, but effective public engagement does not start or end with a press release. Universities should be encouraging their graduate and postdoctoral students, as well as their faculty, to explore the vast landscape of public engagement, when they are so inclined, and provide training to make them as effective as possible. Unfortunately, such activities are too often seen as a distraction from "real work", as several young Scifoo scientists lamented, and as confirmed by one very senior scientist at the session.

Why do young scientists participate in public engagement activities, you might ask, when they have so much to lose? First and foremost, these young scientists are driven by the need to keep science relevant and exciting to the public, and the personal satisfaction that comes from effective engagement. [Editor's note:  much feedback on the importance of inspiring the next generation of scientists, as well as informing the public/policymakers on issues of high societal relevance, like climate change.] But they also sense that the ground is shifting beneath them, as science academia begins to recognize the rewards of broad and deep engagement with the public. While public engagement acumen is not considered in hiring decisions nor promotion and tenure at present, these young scientists felt certain that it soon would be. Effective communication is a learned skill that takes years to develop, so they are building their toolkits well before the market forces materialize.

A "normal" scientist
As a senior academic in my field, I was deeply moved by their faith in the evolution of a system that is notoriously slow to change. Buoyed by reports of creative, new engagement platforms and real-world institutional change, I left the session feeling like I was part of a not-so-secret society. We may look like we're "normal" scientists, but we are slowly and steadily pushing at the frontiers of scientific culture, hoping that one day, public engagement will be nurtured and celebrated across all institutions of higher education.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

All eyes on the tropical Pacific

Is the next major El Niño event already underway?

The chatter amongst the El Niño experts has ticked up significantly this week, with excitement building about whether this fall will witness the arrival of The Big One.

Why all the fuss? And what are the chances of a major El Niño event next winter?

While considerable uncertainty surrounds the conception of an El Niño event, most scientists agree that it helps to have the following features in place:

1) An ocean that is primed for an event (enough time elapsed since the last major event). The last Big One was the 1997-1998 El Niño, and before that was the 1982-1983 El Niño, and before that the 1972-1973 El Niño. By this simple metric, we are due for a Big One. Given that the last moderate El Niño event was 2009-2010, we are at least due for One. Some El Niño scientists describe the pacemaker for the El Niño-Southern Oscillation events as a "recharge oscillator", whereby heat accumulates in the western Pacific ocean until it is discharged to the atmosphere by a cascade of positive feedbacks triggered by . . . (see #2 below).

2) A strong burst of westerly winds along the equator in the west Pacific. Usually, trade winds blow steadily from the east to the west ('easterly' winds) across the tropical Pacific, and they maintain the temperature structure of the equatorial Pacific:  cool waters in the East, and warm waters in the West. Essentially, the trade winds keep the 'thermocline' (the boundary between warm surface waters and the cool deeper waters) close to the surface in the eastern Pacific. When a burst of westerly winds occurs in the western Pacific, it triggers a 'downwelling wave' that propagates eastward along the equatorial thermocline. When it reaches the eastern Pacific, it pushes the thermocline to deeper depths, leading to warmer sea-surface temperatures in this region roughly 2 months after the westerly wind burst. [For more information on ENSO physics, see this recent and exhaustive review by some ENSO heavy-hitters, in press in "Coral Reefs of the Eastern Pacific" (Springer).]

At a certain point (and this is where the mystery comes in), the warming in the central to eastern Pacific is strong enough to undermine the strength of the trade winds themselves. The thermocline further deepens in the east, and surface ocean temperatures warm even more. At that point, the system is moving inevitably towards an El Niño event that will reach its maturity sometime between November and February - a well-choreographed and now-familiar dance between the tropical Pacific atmosphere and ocean.

So what's got all the experts staring at the tropical Pacific data this week?
Well, this, as measured by an array of moored ocean buoys spanning the tropical Pacific, the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean array:

This time-longitude plot tracks the history of westerly wind events, and where they have occurred along the equator. You can see that we are in the midst of a very strong westerly wind burst that began roughly 2 weeks ago in the western equatorial Pacific. 

 To put the current wind event in context, here is a time-longitude plot of westerly winds over the last 20 years, again from the TAO array:

I've flagged the 1997/98 El Niño event, which is the poster-child for the Westerly Wind Burst model of El Niño inception. Indeed, the strength and the timing of the current westerly wind burst is eerily similar to those that occurred in spring of 1997. In 1997, strong warming was observed in the eastern Pacific by late spring.

It will be several months before we know whether The Big One is on its way, but a moderate-sized El Niño event seems almost inevitable. Indeed, a full ensemble of statistical and dynamical forecasts of ENSO can be seen below, courtesy of the IRI, with most models projecting El Niño conditions by JJA (otherwise known as boreal summer).

If this El Niño is The Big One, then this is the chance of a lifetime for scientists to get out in the field and collect data that can illuminate the physical lifecycle of such an extraordinary event and its global impacts on weather patterns, ecosystems, and human systems. This may be as much advance warning as we will ever have - 6 precious months.

Unfortunately, funding agencies are ill-equipped to meet the needs of such "rapid response" science. The federal research vessels are booked out years in advance. Even if someone could convince NSF to mount a multi-disciplinary armada to the tropical Pacific, there is always the risk that it might not develop into The Big One. Nonetheless, whisper campaigns are mushrooming up as we speak, aiming to make an urgent and compelling case that the benefits far outweigh the risks of pursuing such science. Where traditional funding avenues fail, foundation support and/or access to ships of opportunity (yachts or for-hire research vessels) may allow some of the most pressing and low-hanging science to go forward.

Such a coordinated observational campaign is all the more pressing because the TAO array - the only source of direct observations of the tropical Pacific atmospheric winds and subsurface ocean temperature so critical to El Niño's evolution - is losing buoys at an alarming rate because the ship that serviced them has been sidelined by NOAA's funding gaps. Data return has dropped to 36% (M. McPhaden, pers. comm.) - the plots you see above are heavily infilled using the few buoys that remain. Just today, the TAO homepage posted a disclaimer warning of poor data quality. This depressing moment in the history of US ocean science is discussed in a recent Nature News piece.

So, will the tropical Pacific ocean and atmosphere conceive The Big One this spring? I don't know, but it certainly has gone way past flirtation.

Additional links
NOAA issued an "El Niño watch" on March 6, read it here.
Jeff Masters has a great Wunderground blog post on the March 6 NOAA release.