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News Release 16-010

NSF awards rapid response grants to study current El Niño, one of the strongest on record

Awards address effects on coral reefs; connections between rainfall and landslides; and signatures of past El Niños in ice caps

aerial view of NSF's Mo'orea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research site

Scientists at NSF's Mo'orea Coral Reef LTER site are studying El Niño.

February 2, 2016

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

El Niño: What effect will it have on weather, on flooding and landslides, and on economically important coastal ecosystems?

To find answers to these and other questions about the El Niño now underway, the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Directorate for Geosciences has awarded 13 rapid response grants (RAPIDs), totaling $1.59 million, for studies on topics from coral reefs, to landslides, to ice cap snow that contains records of past El Niños. More grants will be awarded in coming weeks and will be added to this list.

El Niño is the formation of warmer-than-usual ocean waters in the equatorial Pacific, with extensive temperature changes along the coast of South America during the month of December -- hence the Spanish name "El Niño," the Christmas child.

Current El Niño among strongest on record

"The current El Niño is one of the strongest on record, and recent rain events in California highlight why it is important for researchers to understand its effect on the atmosphere," said Roger Wakimoto, NSF assistant director for Geosciences.

"There are also other important areas of scientific investigation that need to be pursued," Wakimoto said, "such as the effect of warming ocean temperatures on coral reefs, potential disruptions to marine and fresh water ecosystems, and understanding and predicting landslides from drenching rains."

El Niño has distinct temperature and precipitation changes over land and in the sea, scientists have found. Rainfall and snowfall may be greatly increased or decreased, and flooding and landslides more frequent.

The first ocean temperature changes usually begin during the northern summer (June through September) then continue to grow, reaching their maximum during winter, from November to the following January.

El Niños happen about every two to seven years. The last one was in 2009-2010. Their duration is variable but is usually six to eight months along the equator, with shorter time periods in higher latitudes. There have been exceptional cases of very long El Niños that lasted for two or more years, such as in 1957-1959.

"Understanding the basic scientific mechanisms of El Niño is of great importance to our nation's security and economic lifeblood," says Rick Murray, director of NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences. "Through these rapid response grants, NSF is able to support a diverse array of scientific projects related to this phenomenon."

Far-reaching effects

In the warmer waters of an El Niño, coral reefs -- already under siege around the globe -- often undergo major die-offs from bleaching, ocean acidification and other threats. Through an El Niño RAPID grant, biologists will identify which components of the coral reef ecosystem are most vulnerable and provide a prognosis for survival of corals in a warming world.

Scientists will also study responses of the California Current Ecosystem off the U.S. West Coast to El Niño. Warm-water plankton and fish, for example, may be transported far to the north of their normal ranges. In some El Niños, species that live along the coast of Baja California, Mexico, may be found as far north as off British Columbia.

As more people live along the shore, it's becoming increasingly important to forecast how storms and other weather systems can alter the landscapes of coastlines, geoscientists say. Researchers will collect field data from the Oregon coast during El Niño conditions. These data will make models of beach movement and coastal erosion more accurate.

How can researchers best understand the current El Niño? Perhaps by looking into the past. Scientists will dig new snow pits to collect cores from the Quelccaya ice cap in southern Peru. Samples from these cores will be analyzed to provide new, reliable markers of past El Niño events.

NSF Geosciences El Niño RAPID Awards:

Mary Alice Coffroth, University of Buffalo, SUNY: RAPID: Variations in symbiont diversity in octocoral across seasons and a predicted bleaching event.

Anne Cohen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: RAPID: Can Coral Reefs in the Central Pacific Survive Ocean Warming? A 2015 El Nino Test.

Peter Edmunds, California State University, Northridge: RAPID: The implications of El Nino-related bleaching on coral recruitment in Moorea.

Noah Finnegan, University of California, Santa Cruz: RAPID: Exploiting El Nino to Test for Shear Dilation in a Slow Moving Landslide

Malcolm Hill, University of Richmond: RAPID - Abnormal bleaching in Cliona varians in the Florida Keys: Consequences for coral reef health.

Mark Ohman, University of California, San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography: RAPID: Responses of the California Current Ecosystem to El Nino 2015-16.

Stephen Palumbi, Stanford University: RAPID: Ecological, evolutionary and physiological responses of corals to a mass bleaching event in American Samoa.

Erin Pettit, University of Alaska Fairbanks: RAPID: Observing the Disintegration of the Scar Inlet Ice Shelf

Dan Reed, University of California, Santa Barbara: RAPID: Tracing the input and fate of organic matter from land to coastal ocean

Julian Sachs, University of Washington: RAPID: Galapagos lake chemistry and plankton assemblage during the 2015-16 El Nino

Diane Thompson, Boston University: RAPID: Capturing the Signature of a Strong El Nino Event in Galapagos Lake Sediment Records: the 2015/16 El Nino Opportunity

Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University: RAPID: Characterizing the Chemical and Physical Signature of the 2015-16 El Nino in the Quelccaya Ice Cap Snow and Ice to Calibrate Past ENSO Reconstructions

Jon Witman, Brown University, RAPID: Testing the ability of the 2015-2017 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to drive a community-level regime shift in the Galapagos marine ecosystem


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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