What is El Niño Taimasa?

From the University of Hawaii ‑ SOEST, something I’ve never heard of before. Note the photo.

This shows flat-top Porites coral on a shallow reef near American Samoa. Coral heads are fully submerged under normal conditions. During El Niño Taimasa, tops of large flat coral on the reef are exposed to air at low tide. Credit: Image courtesy of the National Park of American Samoa.

During very strong El Niño events, sea level drops abruptly in the tropical western Pacific and tides remain below normal for up to a year in the South Pacific, especially around Samoa.

The Samoans call the wet stench of coral die-offs arising from the low sea levels “taimasa” (pronounced [kai' ma'sa]). Studying the climate effects of this particular variation of El Niño and how it may change in the future is a team of scientists at the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Two El Niño Taimasa events have occurred in recent history: 1982/83 and 1997/98. El Niño Taimasa differs from other strong El Niño events, such as those in 1986/87 and 2009/10, according to Matthew Widlansky, postdoctoral fellow at the International Pacific Research Center, who spearheaded the study.

“We noticed from tide gauge measurements that toward the end of these very strong El Niño events, when sea levels around Guam quickly returned to normal, that tide gauges near Samoa actually continued to drop,” recalls Widlansky.

During such strong El Niño, moreover, the summer rain band over Samoa, called the South Pacific Convergence Zone, collapses toward the equator. These shifts in rainfall cause droughts south of Samoa and sometimes trigger more tropical cyclones to the east near Tahiti.

Using statistical procedures to tease apart the causes of the sea-level seesaw between the North and South Pacific, the scientists found that it is associated with the well-known southward shift of weak trade winds during the termination of El Niño, which in turn is associated with the development of the summer rain band.

Looking into the future with the help of computer climate models, the scientists are now studying how El Niño Taimasa will change with further warming of the planet. Their analyses show, moreover, that sea-level drops could be predictable seasons ahead, which may help island communities prepare for the next El Niño Taimasa.

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At Ocean Sciences 2014:

PROJECTIONS OF EXTREME SEA LEVEL VARIABILITY DUE TO EL NIÑO TAIMASA, Oral presentation Session #:079 Rising Sea Level: Contributions and Future Projections; Date: 2/26/2014; Time: 12:00; Location: 313 B; http://www.sgmeet.com/osm2014/viewabstract.asp?AbstractID=15569

Widlansky, M.J., A. Timmermann, S. McGregor, M.F. Stuecker, and W. Cai, 2014: An interhemispheric tropical sea level seesaw due to El Niño Taimasa. J. Climate, 27 (3), 1070-1081, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-13-00276.1.

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41 Responses to What is El Niño Taimasa?

  1. Lance Wallace says:

    “taimasa” (pronounced [kai' ma'sa])

    Is this right?

  2. jlurtz says:

    I forget: is sea level up down or down up?

  3. kenin says:

    What contrast!

    I’m looking out the window at 32F and a hvy overcast, waiting for a cold cluster of thunderstorms to move in and a photo of beautiful coral shows up on the screen, (sigh)

    Clearly I have nothing to add to this…

  4. Don Newkirk says:

    Yes, in colloquial Samoan, /t/ has shifted to [k], as it had earlier in Hawaiian.

    en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Samoan_language#consonants

  5. alex says:

    They can predict Taimasa “seasons before”???
    Does it mean, presently no Taimasa is at the horizon?

  6. John West says:

    “Looking into the future”

    So, they have a crystal ball? They are not looking into the future. They are projecting into the future based on what they know which is unavoidably incomplete; the $64M question is how complete or incomplete is their knowledge.

  7. Gary Pearse says:

    University of New South Wales. Is this not Ship-of-Fools University? That kind of help they probably don’t need. Note how wonderfully the coral adapts to this phenomenon. Surely this adaptability is “greater than previously thought” given all the ink given to the fragility of ‘Class Anthozoa of phylum Cnidaria’. Perhaps something missed by the researchers is that this well-developed flat top suggests a similar magnitude of each event. If not, it should be possible to core the coral and see if layers of new growth are discernible above earlier Taimasa levels. Such a record (probably incomplete) would be the key to evaluating how much things may have changed, especially if they can be dated. Ditto on Guam to see how regular the oscillation is.

  8. Steven Mosher says:

    ‘They are projecting into the future based on what they know which is unavoidably incomplete; ”

    otherwise known as science

    REPLY: or astrology – Anthony

  9. John Tillman says:

    Don Newkirk says:
    February 20, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Interchangeable in some Pacific NW coastal Indian languages, ie Tillamook & Killamook.

  10. Gary Pearse says:

    Interestingly, with the last Ice Age, sea levels dropped ~120 metres. This likely means that at the time the ice began to melt, corals around the world were flat topped. Drillling into major coral deposits should hit this level and it should be identifiable by coral debris and then ‘lifts’ of coral growth, probably with increasing interval thicknesses.

  11. tchannon says:

    It would be so nice and interesting if only these people dealt with what is, the history they have uncovered. For the rest put a bung in it.
    Climatology is part of geography and geography tends to deal with history. Get them back to that, poorly paid too, do it for the enjoyment.

  12. milodonharlani says:

    Steven Mosher says:
    February 20, 2014 at 8:09 am

    So the 97% consensus that human activities are 90% responsible for 95% likely to be catastrophic climate change since 1900/1945/1977 (take your pick) is not in fact settled science?

    Good to know. Please alert Jim, Gavin, Phil & Mike. Thanks.

  13. Taphonomic says:

    Is this a result of the “sloshing”? (or is there a more technical term for it?)

  14. jayhd says:

    “Looking into the future with the help of computer climate models, the scientists are now studying how El Niño Taimasa will change with further warming of the planet.”
    Are they also studying how things will change with the cooling of the planet?

  15. Greg says:

    “….the scientists are now studying how El Niño Taimasa will change with further warming of the planet. Their analyses show, moreover, that sea-level drops could be predictable seasons ahead, which may help island communities prepare for the next El Niño Taimasa.”

    OK, so that’s got next years grant money sorted out, now what do they actually find?

    If they’ve managed to ‘tease out ‘ some periodic signals that could be interesting. More attention needs to be give to understanding periodic fluctuations and their drivers in order to separate out any long term signal.

    Sadly as presented here this tells us nothing except the fact that they have a priori assumptions about how it will change in the future based on GCM models that don’t work.

  16. Mike M says:

    More data: http://www.bom.gov.au/oceanography/projects/spslcmp/data/monthly.shtml

    According to SKS – it’s the change in wind direction/strength. (Which of course to Cook isn’t possible in the Arctic to explain temperature and ice changes …..)

  17. RayG says:

    Hmmm, “taimasa?” Sounds kinda sushi to me.

    On to the authors. All list “modeling” in there CVs. There isn’t a statistician among the lot. To quote Bob Dylan, “When will they ever learn?”

  18. Billy Liar says:

    It must be awful for these scientists based in Hawaii to have to go snorkelling around the South Pacific looking for flat-topped corals. It will be a miracle if they are to forecast El Niños years ahead – Jim Hansen couldn’t do it.

  19. Bob Tisdale says:

    From the abstract of the Widlansky et al presentation:
    “Whereas future sea levels are likely to gradually rise, recent modeling evidence suggests that the frequency of strong El Niño events (which alter local trade winds and sea level) is very likely to increase with greenhouse warming.”

    Didn’t we recently see a paper that predicted that we were going into a permanent La Nina dominant phase because of greenhouse warming.

    Regardless, there are no climate models that simulate ENSO properly, so the prediction is hooey. Hooey, I say.

  20. michael hart says:

    I hope I’ll be forgiven for not moving to the edge of my chair in excitement. When I see some meaningful quantitative predictions proved correct, I may may change my mind.

  21. O. Olson says:

    We regularly respell or even outright change place names in American English. Rome for Roma, Gothenburg for Göteborg for example. So if the name of this place is pronounced KAImasa, why not just spell it that way from now on? Or does that just make to much sense?

  22. Latitude says:

    coral are odd creatures….they can’t take a one degree rise in water temps…
    ….but they can be dried out and exposed to sun and rain

    http://media-1.web.britannica.com/eb-media/00/65300-004-C334446B.jpg

  23. CRS, DrPH says:

    The corals want to be up in the air….that way, they can escape ocean acidification.

  24. wws says:

    I prefer El Niño Tiramisu myself. Quite tasty!

  25. crosspatch says:

    This is not rocket science. When you have strong trade winds, it blows water into the western Pacific and the sea level is a bit higher than it is in the eastern Pacific along the coast of South America. We also get some additional sea level as the water temperature in this “western Pacific warm pool” rises and the water expands. When you have an exceptionally strong El Nino, the trade winds can even reverse direction. This blows water out of the western Pacific and reduces sea levels there as that water “sloshes” back across the equatorial region and the water temperatures in the far western Pacific cool off causing an additional drop in levels. Why would they be surprised? Note: During the Holocene Optimum, sea levels were about 2m higher in the western Pacific than they are now.

  26. George says:

    As for the spelling vs pronunciation… blame that on the Dutch. W is H, T is K…

  27. dipchip says:

    Hooey I say:
    Many years ago when I was a small child back in the 30’s on a farm in Nebraska; my Father would say “Hooey” quite often. I of course asked what does Hooey mean? He said, “when I take the Honey bucket out in the Morning to empty it, I throw the contents high in the air so as to cover as much area with Hooey as possible”.

  28. mwhite says:

    “Their analyses show, moreover, that sea-level drops could be predictable seasons ahead”

    Their money where their mouth is????

    Might be worth betting against.

  29. John F. Hultquist says:

    To Gehenna with their models and projections, predictions, and looking into the future!
    If the locals have a word for it, perhaps 1982/83 was not the first ever occurrence of this phenomenon. The flat top of the coral in the photo has the look of a guyot (tablemount) and, thus, repetitive wave action. This aspect of the Pacific may be newly reported but not new. Historic research will be more interesting than standing on a dozen models and shouting ‘unprecedented’ and/or ‘we are all doomed’.

  30. Resourceguy says:

    At this rate gravity will be called upon as a global warming factor, depending on the need of course.

  31. Jimbo says:

    Steven Mosher says:
    February 20, 2014 at 8:09 am

    ‘They are projecting into the future based on what they know which is unavoidably incomplete; ”

    otherwise known as science

    So what does this mean?

    Looking into the future with the help of computer climate models, the scientists are now studying how El Niño Taimasa will change with further warming of the planet.

    It’s called voodoo Climastrology my friend.

  32. Jimbo says:

    During very strong El Niño events, sea level drops abruptly in the tropical western Pacific and tides remain below normal for up to a year in the South Pacific, especially around Samoa.

    Would this lead to coral bleaching if solar irradiance is at its maximum?

  33. Berényi Péter says:

    Oops. A sea level drop of about 200 mm can indeed be seen at the tide gauge of Pago Pago, American Samoa, according to PSMSL (Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level) in 1998. Coordinates of that tide gauge are LON -170.69, LAT -14.28.

    The funny thing is Interactive Sea Level Time Series Wizard of the Sea Level Research Group at University of Colorado, which uses satellite measurements, shows no such drop at the same site at all.

    Tells something about the quality of sea level data.

  34. dp says:

    I don’t see a mechanism here for global warming or global cooling. What I see is a mechanism that works with energy already here, moves it around some, but which has no effect on how much arrives from the Sun nor how much escapes to space. If this kaimasa event changes the balance of energy between Sun and Earth it remains beyond our ken to know how. At lease with CO2 we can be sure that the atmosphere has greater capacity to accumulate energy, even if that greater capacity leads to negative feedbacks that counter it (or positive, for that matter – we don’t know). The kaimasa event doesn’t even affect CO2 level. It has this in common with ENSO events.

  35. accordionsrule says:

    “…which may help island communities prepare for the next El Niño Taimasa.”
    Prepare how? Raise the skegs? Issue gasmasks?

  36. Thanks, A., I guess.
    Another costly “study” to find scary tidings.
    Their crystal ball is not well isolated from their heavy breathing, this makes it murky and very angry.
    I wish it was possible to predict ENSO, or this new variation, for longer than a few months.

  37. Streetcred says:

    I find it difficult to believe that this occurrence at such wide time intervals has any lasting implication for coral growth. More likely that this is a response to regular tidal behavior … which I have successfully replicated in an aquarium with Acropora sp. Then I noticed that the claims originate with UNSW. ‘Nuff said.

  38. JimF says:

    crosspatch says:
    February 20, 2014 at 9:24 am
    This is not rocket science.

    For you and me, perhaps. Apparently these “climate scientists” awake every day to a whole new world, reset to basic parameters, and then set out to write new grant proposals to reprove the world. Are they just idiots, or are they simply the worst brigands in the history of science, pillaging the generosity of the masses in providing grants for “advancing knowledge”?

  39. gymnosperm says:

    Did I miss something or is this a two point data set? Gosh, I was still trying to find the time to figure out nino modakai, or however it’s spelled. Still, it makes sense that in strong ninos sea level will drop in the western Pacific.

    The models actually produce an index for enso. It is wrong, of course, and not at all predictive, but they do sense the emergent phenomenon. My suggestion is they get rid of the f=20 parameter for CO2 and try again.

  40. bwanajohn says:

    Obviously this research is incomplete. I propose the government give me a few million and I will go to Samoa and dive the reefs for a few years to complete this study. Who wants to be a co-researcher?

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